Senegalese Dream

To all the sombodies
April 24, 2012, 9:57 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Something kept me awake last night that I just had to write a little note about.

A friend of mine recently presented about monitoring and evaluation to our new group of Health trainees. Statistics, he said, are a good thing. We want our family and friends here in Senegal to become statistics, because that means they are being counted. If they are being counted, they can’t be nobodies. To punctuate this point, he shared with them a poem by Uruguayan poet and novelist Eduardo Galeano called, “The Nobodies.” Here it is:

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them – will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.

The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.

Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.

Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.

Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.

Who don’t have culture, but folklore.

Who are not human beings, but human resources.

Who do not have names, but numbers.

Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper.

The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.  

The reason this poem pulls at my heartstrings is pretty transparent, I’m sure. I was in the back of the room during this presentation, sniffling to myself. After the reading, I was left thinking about activism, about solidarity, about what it means to be a family, about what it means to be a human family.

There are “nobodies,” according to Galeano’s definition, all around us – in the States and in the developing world. It is certainly not up to me to chide people into “action” in whatever way would make them feel better. That is not the point. The point is that the idea of “activism” – this “let’s-go-get-the-bully” Kony-style activisim –  needs to be reworked, because we’re going about it all wrong. Solidarity is a better approach. Solidarity means nobodying no one. It isn’t an action necessarily, not at first anyway, but a feeling. It means looking at a person and seeing a somebody – specifically, not allowing yourself to see a nobody. Whatever “activism” comes from this first step, will undoubtedly be better than that which is forced, or for publicity, or for anything else that is disingenuous.

I’m going home in six weeks. What a strange time. Thank you, Senegal, thank you for this time you’ve given me here, surrounded by so many wonderful somebodies.

Shoes, or “Welcome to Dakar!”
September 2, 2011, 5:11 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m alive!  I’m still here!  All my apologies for the lack of updates lately.  Hopefully I’ll adequately present my excuses in the blurb to follow.  Or maybe not.  Maybe I’ll just reiterate my laziness. Here goes nothing!

In April I moved to Dakar.  Let’s just say that during my COS (close of service) conference sometime back in March (or was it February?) I had a prise de conscience or an anxiety attack or SOMETHING that made me think it was a good idea to stay here for another year.  I’m still riding that wave via my new job in the Peace Corps office which has been great. Just absolutely great.  I really can’t mince words here.  Right now my job title is Health and Environmental Education Program Assistant…. which boils down to a lot of volunteer support, training organization, and other piecemeal things that give me a reason to stay very busy as I’m sitting in an air-conditioned room for almost 8 hours a day. I’ve loved working here for the past few months and I’m consistently pleased at the new opportunities and challenges that this line of work has given me.  Could I have found this satisfaction in the States?  That, I do not know.  My only complaint, really, is about the shoes.

My new apartment, in which I and my new roommates (roommates! yay!) live, is almost exactly a three minute walk from our office.  Its rainy season now and pretty much the only time that Dakar is uncomfortably hot and uncomfortably puddle-filled.  Not necessarily from the rain, but also from the raw sewage gurgling up from the bowels of my neighborhood through manhole covers and into the streets bringing a new color to the landscape: the neutral brown water and mud, bordered by a lovely emerald green where its had the opportunity to grow new life, accented by the brilliant shades of trash that has washed up from God-knows-where.  Truly a feast for the eyes.  Or something like that.  Try putting your tootsies into that kind of environment.  Even your sandal-clad tootsies.  Its pretty gross and enough to send any self-respecting shoe into retirement.  Thankfully, I bought rain boots and thankfully, some sweet (or very clean) people in my neighborhood have strategically placed stones in the puddles so as to provide a way to navigate through it all.  Even with boots, I’ve tried to stifle the urge to go jumping through the puddles because sewage splattered clothes is not a good look.

Though my shoes haven’t been welcomed to Dakar, I certainly have.  And I hope to write more about my new life here so you all can get acquainted as I’m getting acquainted. Miss you all and write more soon.  And this time I mean it.



Miss Swiss
February 6, 2011, 1:19 pm
Filed under: Village Life

I’m still here.

I’ve been out of touch, and I know it.  To everyone equally, I hope. The cold season is still here and stubbornly refusing to go away (not a problem, not a problem at all).  There’s no choice but to take advantage: I sleep until 9, with a sweater and long pants on and a sheet pulled up over my head, I walk around the village smiling without thinking about the heat, and I shiver while standing in direct sunlight as I dump a cup of water over my head during my mid-day bucket bath.  I no longer have to wonder which droplets on my skin are water and which ones are sweat.  It’s my second cold season, and my last.  In about three months I’ll be home again.  For now, I’m really enjoying the time that I have left in Kanel.  Even when, for example, I might open my water bottle and get a whiff of what smells like 3M brand Scotch tape (which reminds me of Christmas), it doesn’t send me into a slump of homesickness.  Funny that now that I have America staring me in the face, I miss it the least. 

I learned something important the other day: You don’t know what being self-conscious is until you stand in front of a classroom full of 60 thirteen-year-olds all simultaneously screaming at you “Sir! Sir!”  My counterpart, Mr. Thiam, is an English teacher, and sometimes I just don’t understand how he does it.  I had come to help, and already just walking into the room was overwhelming.   There I was, standing awkwardly in front of them as they all stared holes into me, making me feel like a piece of Swiss cheese.  And you can’t get Swiss cheese anywhere within a two hundred kilometers.  Now that is self-conscious. 

The first thing I did was teach them that I wasn’t a Sir, I was a Miss.  That was easy enough.  It was impressive that they were first year English students, and I was able to speak to them completely in English, and they more or less understood.  I mean, it was slooooow, E-N-U-N-C-I-A-T-E-D, English, but they got it.  Back when I was a freshman in high school, I remember my French teacher, Mrs. Duncan, getting frustrated because we would speak like this….” Je voudrais something something…” when we couldn’t think of the appropriate French words.  She had this French flag that she would put on her desk and, we were instructed, when we saw this flag we were to only speak French.  Of course this didn’t work.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to tackle that problem with Mr. Thiam’s students.  They were a little more willing to put themselves out there and make mistakes.  The self-consciousness subsided a bit. 

Mr. Thiam put me in charge of two lessons.  The first was to draw a picture of a person on the board and label various parts of the body: eyes, ears, feet. My back was to the kids as I drew the picture on the blackboard.  I could hear them laughing and talking to each other in Pulaar or Wolof or whatever.  They never spoke French to each other, even though that is the language in which the lessons are taught.  The sense of order that was almost always present in the American classrooms from my memory was noticeably absent.  Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Mr. Thiam calmly standing in the corner, waiting for me to finish.  He’s a cheerful guy with a permanent semi-smile on his face.  There was a perfect pleat down the center of his khaki pants.  He was unflappable.  Even though I was pretty sure that all 60 of his students were using their outside voices.  Standing up there, with the comforting din behind me, I felt a little more at ease.  I had drawn a picture of a boy.  At the last minute, I wrote “AKON” boldly across the front of his t-shirt.  Akon, the Senegalese-American, rapper, English-speaker extraordinaire, made me think that they’d relate to my blackboard boy a little more.  When I turned around to face them again, everyone was clapping.    

The second lesson was a dictation that involved me pronouncing vocabulary from the classroom so the kids could hear it from a native speaker.  I had to repeat each word at least ten times because they had such trouble understanding me.  This may sound strange, but I felt the slightest bit vindicated at that moment for all those instances I had had a tough time with the Pulaar glottal stop.  I took this idea and tucked it away for later: the next time someone laughed at me for my pronunciation, I am going to say “Oh yeah, well then pronounce the word ‘chalk’ correctly and then we’ll talk.”

I’m not sure how much those kids learned from me.  If anything, they learned that pop culture references are always appropriate, and that American English is really different and perhaps funny sounding.  Actually, I probably learned that too.  Also, I learned that even though you may start out on the outside,  the people here just pull you into their friendliness and silliness and not-taking-themselves-seriously-ness and pretty soon, even a weird and out-of-place piece of Swiss cheese can fit in.

Rich Senegalese People
October 27, 2010, 6:15 pm
Filed under: Village Life

I’m standing in a kitchen, waiting for the seconds to tick down on the humming microwave so I can pull out my handsome reward, a steaming bowl of oatmeal.  My hip is leaning against the tiled countertop.  My mind wanders as I passively note the magnets populating the refrigerator; it’s the run-of-the-mill kind with the smaller freezer door on top and a fake wood grain handle on its left side.  It all seems so mundane, from the white silver-handled cabinets hiding nestled plates and bowls to the frosted light fixture gazing over the room from above.  Then, the deep, throaty “BAH” of a ram tethered up outside brings me back to reality.

This non-traditional siren reminds me that I’m not in America.  I’m not playing the role of America Renee, waking up from 8 hours of restful sleep in a temperature controlled room to a breakfast prepared by the magical zap of micro-waves.  Nope. I’m now Senegal Renee.  For the past year and a half, I’ve been sleeping on a 4 inch thick foam mattress, which lies on top of a woven plastic mat, which lies on top of the cement foundation next to my hut and only steps away from the pen where my family’s sheep stay the night.  I bathe out of a bucket.  I lounge under neem trees.  Pillows are a luxury.  Meals are prepared in a huge iron pot over a roaring open fire.  

I’m just a visitor in this nice kitchen, like so many other kitchens across Dakar, Senegal’s relatively luxurious capital city (the word “relatively” is important here for those of you who have been to Dakar).  How does one reconcile these different lifestyles?  I could jump in a car right now and drive in almost any direction and find huts, the thatched roof kind, begging children with their skin diseases, traditional healers, herders staring towards their herds in the distance with tooth sticks protruding from their mouths.  Dakar is like a different planet, because here the local flavor changes dramatically: here, there are Rich Senegalese People. 

These curious specimens…Rich Senegalese Women actually wear high heels because there is actually pavement.  The Men wear ties to work, with glasses so they can see clearly (almost unheard of in villages). They drive nice cars and go to dance clubs on Saturday nights.  They eat their meals at kitchen tables with utensils, instead of out of a communal bowl on the ground with their hands.  These Rich Senegalese People would probably relate much more to America Renee than to Senegal Renee. “Why would you want to live in the north where’s its hot?” they might ask,  “Why would you want to live in a village where life is harder?”   

Sometimes, when I see them in their natural habitat (eating pizza at a restaurant, standing in line at the bank) I wonder how they got there.  They seem so removed from the new normal that I’ve become accustomed to in the villages.  Did they go to university? Do they watch movies with friends? Have they seen how the majority in their country live? And what do they think about it?  They are the privileged few.

I speak English small small
September 29, 2010, 6:15 pm
Filed under: Village Life

This t-shirt belongs to my adorable little year-old host nephew, Sada.  His mom purchased it at the lumo, or weekly market.  Just in case you think your eyes are playing tricks on you, I’ll translate the text: “TOP SPORT ment nautical instrument thec, lock (or iock?) young 78 of newstan new top.” 

Yeah, I don’t know what that means either, but I do understand why so many people tell me that English is easy.  It depends on the KIND of English we’re talking about.  Everything makes sense to me now!

Yo Allah Hoku Maa… (May God Give You…)
September 29, 2010, 5:38 pm
Filed under: Village Life

….A good score on the GRE!  No that isn’t just a really large bracelet on my arm, it’s a gris-gris!  Gris rhymes with glee (c’mon people, its French!).  I’ve been openly studying for the exam with my family during the past few weeks and maybe my stress was starting to show.  But lucky me, we have a visiting Koranic teacher staying with us who offered to make me my very own special charm to bring blessings on the big day. 

Thierno Samba (thierno means teacher), took me aside and scribbled down my vitals in his notebook: Your name?  No, your real name, not your Senegalese name. What problems are you having while studying?  Where are you taking the test?  He went away, presumably to perform some abracadabra type incantation, and a few hours later, he handed me a string about 8 inches long with 7 knots tied into it.  Thierno Samba slowly counted them in front of me “goo, didi, tati, nayi, joyi, jegom, jeydidi,” as if that was supposed to have some significance (guess I missed that).  Then he listed the benefits that my new gris-gris will bring me: “All of the information that you need will enter into your head,” he said “And even if someone tries to distract you, you will succeed.” 

I took my magical string to a leather worker who fashioned it into a band wrapped in white goat leather.  Per Thierno Samba’s instructions, I am to wear my GRE gris-gris continuously until I’ve taken the test.  Does this mean I can stop studying? (Kidding, Mother, only kidding) Wish me luck!

Going back to Ndendory
July 27, 2010, 1:01 pm
Filed under: Village Life

The last time I went to Ndendory, I spent the entire trip trying to swallow the hard marble of suppressed tears after Jeynaba’s death.  And here I find myself again, to greet her brother on his first trip home from Angola to see his family since it happened. 

Ndendory looks so much different now.  The rains have brought vivid colors to the landscape.  A cool breeze blows across the spaces between the bright green new grass and the deep blue sky and it reminds me of my brother’s paintings.  I imagine all the changes that have happened since the last time Jeynaba walked this same dirt path.  There’s a new house along the way and I wonder if it was there when she was, if she had gotten to see it. 

Jeynaba’s family has also changed.  Her mother seems to be in much better spirits.  It is still shocking to look into her eyes and see her daughter there.  This is what Jeynaba would have looked like.   We all sit in a semi-circle under a tree.  Jeynaba’s mom and sister, Fatimata, are sitting on a rusted bed frame back to back and swiveled toward my sisters and I in chairs.  A cup of water is passed around for everyone to drink, customary to welcome visitors.  Jeynaba’s brother arrives dressed all in white.  I notice that he sits outside of our circle so that I have to turn my back to see his face.  Maybe he doesn’t want us to see his expressions, since we’re well outside of the acceptable time limit for grieving.  My sister patiently asks about every member of the family and their health, while I sit and calculate the time it must have taken him to save for his plane ticket from Angola.  On February 7th he started saving, and now here we all are only a week away from August.  

As much as she tries to stop it, tears fall from my sister’s eyes as she’s talking about perfectly ordinary things.  She wipes them discretely with her headscarf and everyone successfully pretends that everything is fine.  In my mind, I am thinking about my own recent loss: My aunt, my mom’s older sister.  I can’t sit with my family now under a tree somewhere and share their grief.  I’ll miss their first steps in healing.  Suddenly there’s so much sadness that it pushes down on my shoulders like the humidity in the air and I hear a voice saying distinctly: “This is horrible.” I feel like I’m only seconds away from crumbling right there in front of everyone, crumbling like the roads after a heavy rain, crumbling like Jeynaba’s family’s expectations after she so quickly slipped out of their lives.  The marble returns and I try so hard to swallow it down.  I picture myself as a cartoon with an Adam’s apple like protrusion. 

Then there’s the sound of someone peeing.  Through my panic, the scene has continued, the absent-minded conversation is still going on, I’m still here, and I’ve managed to retain some semblance of composure.  But where is that sound coming from?  I literally expect to see a child squatting nearby, or a sheep.  I finally see the water cup sitting in between Jeynaba’s mom and sister.  It had tilted on the wired cage-like surface of the bed frame and now is slowly spilling out into a little pool in the grass.  Fatimata is staring into space.  The other women are talking quietly.  No one even glances at the cup.  

Another woman approaches with a baby boy in her arms, Fatimata’s son Thierno.  There’s a little unspoken game that people like to play here when I’m around.  I call it: “Will the child cry at the sight of a white person?”  Or perhaps they’ll scream?  Maybe they’ll giggle?  If the result is positive they say things like “See?! He isn’t afraid!” accompanied by a big grin.   If negative, they sit around and laugh until they complain of stomach pains and tease the child relentlessly (“How are you ever going to go to America if you’re afraid of white people?” or “If you do anything bad, we’re calling the white person over!”).  It is great fun.  

This round of “Will the child cry at the sight of a white person” provides a necessary distraction.  Thierno is immediately passed to me and I sit him in my lap, doing the bouncy knee thing and humming “Yummaa yehii jabbe,” a favorite with the kids in my family.   He just looks at me, one little eyebrow raised, mouth wide open, perfectly round droplet of drool poised on the edge of his lip, ready to take the dive on to my blue pagne.  Memories flash through my mind like a movie and I don’t see him anymore.  I see Jeynaba in her new red complète, excited about the birth of her nephew.  I see Jeynaba fanning herself on my bed and talking about home.  I see Fatimata sobbing with her new infant in her lap, only days after the death of her sister.   He was only a month old when Jeynaba died and this is how far we’ve come since then.  He can hold his head up and make little cooing noises.  He’s seen rain for the first time, and all of the changes that it brings, even if he can’t understand them.  Time has marched on without Jeynaba, but we still have her in some ways.  We still have her fingerprint on our lives.  We still have the knowledge that we’re better for having known her. 

Thierno doesn’t cry.  He looks up at me with his little gummy grin.  It fills me with incredible optimism.