Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ile de Gorée & Mbour

Last Friday, we visited l'Ile de Gorée (Gorée Island).  It is a small island right off the coast of Dakar, about a 20 minute ferry ride.  Gorée was the intermediary point for slaves in transit from Africa to the New World.  The first slave transport across the Atlantic was in 1562.  Between 12 and 15 million slaves passed through Gorée until the mid 1800s when slavery was abolished.  In the photo above, you can see a door at sea level on the red building in the middle.  That is "the point of no return"--where the slaves boarded ships, parting with their freedom forever.  The building is now la Maison des Esclaves (the House of Slaves), open to the public.  I felt an overwhelming connection to the past despite being in an atmosphere where so much brutality against humanity took place.

We also visited the Women's museum, which is housed in a gorgeous 1777 mansion (below), and a naval fort that is now a museum of Gorée's history.  All of the architecture on Gorée is beautiful.  The brilliantly painted buildings made me feel like I was in the Caribbean.  I can admit that I have become obsessed with the chaloupe, the small wooden Senegalese boats.  Even the engines are adorned with designs.  There were hundreds zooming around Gorée all day.  
la Musée des Femmes

The entire island was this vibrant:

Des chaloupes (I took at least 60 photos of these boats...)

On Sunday, our group traveled to Mbour, a coastal village about 2 hours from Dakar.  We spent a few hours on the beach, then visited a lush, serene hotel for lunch.  It was a very relaxing start to the day, but the best part of the day was, by far, participating in, and witnessing the Kankourang tradition in the residential part of the village where the Mendinga people live.  The Kankourang is a sacred, animist tradition that occurs every Sunday in September.  At the beginning of the month, 3-10 years boys are circumcised by sages, wise elders.  Physically and spiritually, these boys are in a vulnerable state.  The Kankourang, a spirit (but really a man in a full body costume made of tree bark, with a machete) comes to the village to ward off evil spirits.  He was dancing to pounding drum beats, totally in a trance.  Literally thousands of people were circled around him, and when the spirit lurched toward the crowd in a certain direction, everyone would run away.  It was the craziest experience of my life, no lie.  I was scared, yet giddy, with adrenaline rushing through my veins, and I could not wipe the grin off my face. My words cannot even begin to adequately describe this experience.  We drove into the village in a bus, and kids began hitting the bus, still moving, with sticks.  Some even stared us down and passed their hand across their throat, telling us we were dead meat.  There was a Mbour native on the bus with us who explained it was all because they thought we were going to take pictures, which is strictly prohibited.  I felt very unwanted and unwelcome, an outsider intruding and invading their space.  As soon as we got off the bus and promised to leave our cameras behind, everything was ok.  In this day and age when everything is made instantly available on the internet, it was so powerful to be part of something so preserved and still so sacred. It has remained unchanged since the beginning of civilization.  The Kankourang has been the best part of my time in Senegal so far.

Here is photo of where we had lunch at the beach in Mbour...not too shabby

And here are some of my friends (Kathleen, Erica, Megan, Kayla, Lauren, Rachel, Simone, and Claire) at the old fort on Gorée. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

des photos

I've included several photos here to help illuminate the past days over here in Senegal. I have been very busy, and this post has been postponed a few times due to power outages.  Power outages (and water) are real issues here.  There has been at least one power outage (panne d'électricite) every day, and it doesn't phase anyone. It's just part of Senegalese life.

This is a photo of a group of accomplished Senegalese musicians who came during my Arts and Culture Seminar to open our eyes and ears to the "rhythms of Senegal".  The man on the far left is playing the kora, a cross between a guitar and a harp.  Moving to the right, there is a man playing the djembe, then some bongo-esce drums played with drum sticks, another djembe (2nd from right)...this man is actually an incredibly famous djembe drummer and teacher.  According to his jam sess-mates, he taught every young djembe drummer everything he/she knows.  Last, on the far right is a tama, or talking drum, player.  This drum is played with a form of mallet, and the sound changes as the player moves his elbow up or down--like an armpit accordion.  They sounded amazing, and we were all dancing by the end.

This photo was taken at La Village des Arts, an artist colony supported and promoted by the government! There are probably 20 artists who have their studios here. There is also an amazing gallery. We met a glass painter, a ceramicist, a batik artist, and a few bronze sculptors.  Batik is the Senegalese art of making designs on fabric with wax, and dying the fabric.  Wherever there is wax, the fabric will not dye.  I will be doing batik myself in a few weeks!

This is Séa Diallo, a famous glass painter (and regular painter), in his studio.

Here are some cows on the highway.  They cross at their leisure. They are everywhere, along with horses, dogs, and cats.  You can also see the trash in this picture.  Waste management is a problem here.  There are usually trash piles burning on the sidewalks.

Below is a picture of the National Monument of Senegal: L'essence du Senegal. Not only is the biggest monument in the world, but it cost the country a fortune, and it has stirred up much controversy.  It depicts a father, mother, and child pointing and looking into the distance--toward a hopeful future.  The people who denounce the monument believe it represents President Abdoulye Wade (who funded it), and I have learned there is much resentment of the current president.  He is getting very old, and he just decided to run for a 3rd term.  We will see what happens in the coming election, but right now, the country is polarized regarding his reelection.

I am proud of this next photo.  You can see some classic wooden Senegalese boats.  They are painted with very colorful designs, and they are primarily used for fishing.  The beaches here are gorgeous, and the surf is huge (very hard to swim in, I have found out!).  There are some spots where swimming is prohibited due to strong rip tides.

I took this photo last Sunday at the Parc Forstier de Hahn, a HUGE park right in the city with lush forests, ponds, and miles and miles of trails like this.  There is also a small petting zoo, which I did not go to.  It is absolutely beautiful, and so serene and quite despite being surrounded by a bustling city.  So unlike parks in the U.S.

Here is my Senegalese family (minus my brother Cheikh, pronounced Cher, 19)! From left to right is Mari (9), Aida (21), my father Babou, Fabintu (15), and Mama.  They are all wonderful!

Last but not least, a picture of Aida and me.  We get along really well.  She helps me with French and Wolof, and I help her with English.

À bientot!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Le pain de singe

Photo from the roof of SIT with the national monument of Senegal in the distance.

So far, the first week has been filled with an assortment of adventures.  I'm probably going to jump around a bit here, just so much to tell!
On Tuesday, aside from the continued orientation sessions on health, safety, cultural tips, we ventured out from the SIT building and into the neighboring streets of Sacre Coeur (the surrounding neighborhood).  We each had a "Senegalese object" such as la theiere, a tea pot; or la natte, a mat for sitting or praying.  We had no idea what the objects were--we had to ask people in the street how they are used, who uses them, their names in French and Wolof, etc.  We went out in groups of three, and thankfully most people spoke French! My object was le pain de singe (monkey bread) or buy, pronounced bouy in Wolof.  It is the fruit of a baobad tree. It looks like chunks of white grainy soap with black balls in the middle (sorry no picture).  The black balls are the seeds that feel like hard tapioca balls one might find in bubble tea. One spits these seeds out after chewing.  It tastes like mild, slightly bitter dried apple.  This task was enjoyable because we got real conversation exposure, and we saw the side streets.  On the flip side; however, it was the first time we experienced what it feels like to be a toubab, the Wolof word for white person.  People openly called me toubab and I was perceived and treated like a foreigner, an outsider.  It is by no means a bad thing, it is a reality, and I just have to get used to it.

This highlight of the day yesterday was the first meeting with our host families.  One member of each family came to SIT to greet us.  For me, it was Fabintu, my fifteen year old host sister.  She came with her friend/neighbor (whose name I forget), and her cousin who is the host sister of Alexa, another SIT student.  I was happy to learn that for the most part, every family is somehow connected to another.  Whether it be blood relation, or for business.  Another example: I learned my host mother is a seamstress.  She sells her designs to the boutique owned by Rachel's host mother.  The visit with Fabintu and the other girls was really fun! They are vibrant teenagers, and despite some moments when the language barrier was very evident, we easily communicated and laughed together.  They dress like American teenagers, have cell phones, Facebook, and love Emimen, Beyonce, and KeSha (I could not relate to liking Kesha....).  This surprised me a little bit, but I know it will not detract from my home stay experience.  I will also have a 9 year old sister, a 19 year old brother, a 21 year old sister! I am so excited to have siblings!!  I move in with them tomorrow night. They live in a neighborhood called Mermoz: in walking distance of SIT!

Today was our first excursion downtown.  We were prepared after learning about how pickpocket scams work, and the areas to avoid.  In groups of three, we took taxis (2,000 CFA for a 15 min cab ride= $4 .....amazing.) to various destinations in the heart of the city.  My group went to la place d'independance, the real heart of the city.  Bouna told me it's the Times Square or Downtown Crossing of Dakar.  First of all, the cab ride was crazy.  It is common for cabbies to blow a tire and change it during a trip.  We had no idea where we were going, and all of a sudden the driver said <<Ici>>, "we're here".  We got out across from a beautiful blue mosiac fountain with golden lions aplenty.  Beyond that was the Chambre du Commerce (it only said ambre du Commerce on the building), and le banque Attijariwafa, the biggest bank in Senegal.  Next we wandered the streets to complete a questionnaire activity.  I just have to say how illuminating this experience was.  We were constantly being haggled and/or followed by street vendors trying to sell us everything from phone cards to sunglasses to peanuts.  I got used to saying non, merci non, merci.  That's just how it works here! The tubab commentary was evident again too.  After a bit we stopped to bargain with a vendor to try to by something for 1000 CFA (which is cheap=$2).  THis was part of the day's assignment.  The man we bargained with refused to reduce the price of his espidrille shoes, but we chatted in English, French, and Wolof for about 20 minutes! He started calling us his sisters, white Senegalese.  He also gave us all Wolof names--a custom here.  Mine was Miami...not Wolof at all...I think it was just too hard for him to say Merrill.  I accepted it. I should say everyone here struggles with my name.  It doesn't easily translate to a French/Wolof accent.  The people here are so welcoming and hospitable.  Hospitality is called teranga in Wolof, and it is a major, if not the major tenet of their culture.  Our new friend, Banasané, brought us to his fabric shop where he showed us BEAUTIFUL fabrics, dresses, skirts, bags, pants (I bought a pair), baskets, and on and on.  It was on an alley of jam-packed, truly Senegalese shops.  Banasané was telling me that the Lebanese have come to Dakar and totally monopolized the vendor scene on the major streets, so to really see Senegal, you have to go to the alleys, parallel to the busy streets.  After talking with him and his friends for a long time, he showed us a public bathroom (all mosiac, with a few "stalls" with a hole in the ground that you flush out with water) that costs 100 CFA to use (25 cents) and brought us to his favorite restaurant for lunch, where we said goodbye=baba ngo=until next time! I had chwarma for lunch, like a gyros with shaved beef, french fries, tomatoes, herbs, and good sauce.  All in all a great day! I was so happy to finally see the city.  I'm exhausted though, and next time I will take pictures as I didn't bring my camera today. À bientot!

Monday, September 5, 2011

I'm here!

After almost 24 hours of travel I arrived in Senegal.  There were three other girls from my program on my flight from Paris to Dakar.  It was great to get to know them, and to have company in the line for customs and the wait for baggage.  You should know that we disembarked from the plane right down to the pavement outside (a first), then took a van to the airport entrance.  After getting photographed and fingerprinted at customs, we waited for our bags the 1 baggage claim for the entire airport. Next we were picked up by Bouna, an important guy at SIT, and taken to the Hotel Good Rade where we will be staying for the week.  A nice hotel; I have a comfy bed, and the room has AC, which is much appreciated because it is VERY hot and sticky outside.

Today the entire group (21 of us) met for breakfast at the hotel. Then we walked down to the street to what I would call a restaurant, which had a large room in back where we had orientation all day.  Basically our academic director, Souleye, spoke to about the ins and outs of the program.  It will be more of the same thing all week.  Tomorrow we will go to the SIT head quarters, our home base, where all classes, activities, etc will be.

This is what we had for lunch. It's called chebujan (spelling?), the national dish of Senegal, which means fish and rice.  It was basically rice topped with seasoned balls of compressed fish, fish fillet, carrots, eggplant, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, all covered in a delicious sauce. Four or five people sit around one of these plates and you grab some food, roll it into a ball in your hand, and eat it! Then you lick your hand clean after you finish.  Very messy to say the least--I was covered in rice by the end, but it was definitely a totally new eating experience.

We learned a bit of Wolof today too.  Merrill laa tudd (my name is Merrill)! The teachers are all great, all Senegalese, and all fulent in Wolof, French, and English! Gives me something to aspire to! Also everyone in my group is awesome.  I look forward to getting to know everyone better in the months to come.

This is a picture of the road from the hotel. I'm really here!

Friday, September 2, 2011

The beginning

Tomorrow is the big day. I will be leaving to study abroad in Senegal for the semester!  All the preparation has finally come to fruition.  I fly from Boston to Paris, spend 10 hours in Paris (maybe enough time to catch a glimpse of the city?), then Paris to Dakar, arriving at 8 pm Sunday night.  Dakar, the capital city, is where I'll be for the majority of the time.  I will take classes at the University of Dakar, and I'll be living with a Senegalese family in the city.  There are two week-long excursions to rural villages throughout my stay, and the program culminates with a four week independent research project.

I am so excited to begin this adventure--definitely a bit nervous too.  From the research I've done about Dakar, and Senegal, I think I have this image in my mind of what it might be like, but at the same time I have no idea what to expect.  I'll just have to wait and see!  At this point, I'm most curious about Wolof: the native language of Senegal.  I'm taking at Wolof class, and I've heard it is a language TOTALLY different from English and other romance languages.  So far I know Assalamalekum! (Welcome!) So assalamalekum to my blog!

My friends know I'm not particularly tech-savvy, but I'm committed to this blog, as it is my primary way to keep ties with everyone in the states.  No promises about the frequency of posts...but I'll do the best I can.  Thanks for reading!