Tuesday, October 25, 2011


My village family in Nathia.

Our faithful bus left the campment (a rural African hotel composed of huts) last Monday afternoon to drop all of us off at our respective villages.  We would spend the next 4 days living with a family of an ethnic minority group in a small village surrounding Kedougou.  While all of my peers would be living in a village with one or two others, I had learned a few hours earlier that I would be ALONE in a NEW village! (they have never hosted a student before).  My village is called Nathia, and the people are of the ethnic minority Peul Bandee.  Their language is Pulaar.  Part of me was honored to learn this news, but part of me was nervous.  The butterflies in my stomach intensified on the bus ride because my village was the farthest away and I was dropped off first!  The road to my village was too rugged for the bus, so I had to get out and walk with one of the locals the rest of the way.  I said my goodbyes and began to follow this guy into the bush.  I looked over my shoulder a few times, happy to see my friends still waving to me from the bus.  Then it came to the point when I looked back, and the bus was out of view.  Holy shit, I’m in the middle of Africa, walking down a trail with grass up to my chest on either side. I have no idea where I’m going.  What’s going to happen??!? I’m not going to see anyone I know for 4 days ahhhhhh. Basically a million questions raced through my mind.  A few anxious minutes later, I saw a cluster huts peeking over the grass.  Then a pack of children came running toward me, smiles smeared across their faces.  They grabbed my hands and dragged me into the compound.  I immediately felt welcome and my worries vanished. 
            My host family, the Ba family, is headed by Boubacar Ba: the director of the local school.  He lives with his two wives, Maimouna (whom he has 9 children with), and Fanta (whom he has 7 children with).  My family lives in a compound of 9 huts removed from the rest of the village.  Only 200 people live in Nathia, and my family accounts for 20 of them!  Living in a polygamous setting for a few days was a completely new experience, to say the least.  Bouba and I had a few discussions about marriage, and while our opinions differ greatly, I have to say having many many hands sure does make light work, and there is LOT of work that has to get done every day in a village.  Gathering food for 3 meals a day, retrieving water from the well, cooking, doing laundry in the river, cleaning up, taking care of the young-ins, and the women do it ALL! 
            I felt very connected to the earth while in the village, because all of the food we ate was harvested right before the meal: the rice, the corn, the gumbo (a vegetable), the spices (like little spicy peppers), the peanuts (I ate more peanuts than I ever thought I could).  It was also enjoyable to be away from money for the week.  I can now say that I have hearded cows! My family has 27.  They go out and graze in the bush all day, and before sundown, we went out acted as any good sheep dog.  Condensing them into a group, then guiding them back to the village.  At that point, we would drag them by the horns to their posts where we would tie them down by the horns.  It was hard, it was impossible not to step in pile of poop after pile of poop, but it was so fun.

Some of the other things I did last week:

Busted a tire en route

climbed a gorgeous mountain!

the view of the mountain range between Senegal and Guinea is phenomenal AND we were up there at sunset!

visited the Dindefelo waterfall. It was breathtaking. I'd say it was over 300 ft tall.

We swam in it too!

This is my host father, Boubacar Ba, with the briefcase.  I took this on the walk to his school one day.  The other man, with the bike, is the chief of the village.  He has been chief for over 30 years. 

Here are all (well, some) of my sisters in the peanut fields.  Peanuts are a huge source of income in villages.  I ate some right from the ground.

My family compound. It's like a living organism.

My host brother Abdul pouring Ataaya tea.  It a ritual, the pouring of this tea.  The Senegalese drink it every day after lunch, and it is always served in the same 2 little cups.

This is some of us surrounding the biggest baobab tree in Senegal! It is over 300 years old, and it took 23 of us, hand to hand, to reach all the way around it. Pretty cool.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The eve of another excursion

Tomorrow I leave for a 9 day excursion to Kedougou, a village 10 hours inland.  Check it out on the map below.  I will be staying a family of an ethnic minority group BUT we will be able to communicate in French!  We will skirt the Gambian border driving to and from Kedougou, and I can't wait to finally see some wildlife.  A large portion of the drive is through a national parc.  Many pictures and stories to come upon my return on the 22nd! Ba baneen yoon! (= à la prochaine fois = until next time!)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

art class

Last week was full of art.  Monday- Wednesday I had a bronze sculpting workshop class.  The art of bronze sculpting is a fascinating and intricate process.  First, one sculpts a piece out of wax (it needs to be hollowed out if it is really thick), then we cast the wax in mold of cement and sand.  This is as far as we got in three days.  After the mold is solid, it is placed over a fire so the wax heats up and drips out.  Then, liquid hot magma...just kidding, liquid hot bronze is poured into the mold.  Last, you crack away the cement, and the final bronze sculpture comes to life!

A bunch of pictures from my bronze experience.  Above is the studio.
I ended up making some jewelry, a fish keychain, a mini baobab tree, and a meerkat.  As you can see here, the professional sculptors attached all of our pieces together with pieces of wax to create a web of our personal creations.  This allows the wax to drip out of the mold.  After the bronze hardens, they cut the individual pieces apart.

One of the artists melting our pieces together.

Some of my pieces.  The pointy part on top will stick out of the cement mold.  Since all of the wax is connected, when it liquifies, it will have a way to drip out.

A professional piece. It was amazing, and scary, to watch the pros hollow out the pieces.  They do it by sticking a hot poker into the wax, and the inside melts out.  This trumpet was solid at first, and even though you can't see it here the walls are only a quarter-centimeter thick.

The molding process.

Thursday-Saturday, our entire group participated in a batik workshop.  Batik is the art of dying fabric, but the kicker is... WAX.  The first step in this process is making your design on the fabric with wax.  Wherever there is wax, the fabric will stay white because the wax resists the dye.  There are many methods of applying wax.  Drawing with a foam "pen", painting over the whole thing to create a crackled effect, dripping/splattering little droplets, or (my favorite) using big wooden stamps called tampons.  (I guess we're not mature adults yet because we all giggled when we learned they were called tampons.)  I would dip the tampon into the liquid wax, then stamp it onto the fabric. The dying process involves some heavy chemicals--we had to wear gloves and masks.  The craziest part of batik were the colors of the dyes.  The yellow dye is deep purple in the bin! Only by drying in the sun does the fabric slowly transform to yellow. 

Me and one of my pieces-

All of our designs hanging out to dry!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

it's been a long time comin'

Today, I can say I've been in Senegal for a month! (well technically a month and a day...I wrote this yesterday but couldn't post it).  I was away all of last week (hence the lack of posts) experiencing Senegalese life in Thies, Touba, Tassinere, and Saint Louis. 

We left on Friday, September 23, headed to the city of Thies, the second largest city in Senegal after Dakar.  On our way we stopped at the Kermeussa monastery to observe the Friday afternoon mass.  While 95% of Senegal is Muslim, there is niche of Christianity.  It was similar to Christian services in the states, but it felt like an intimate choral and orchestral performance thanks to the combination of Senegalese monks and hymns performed with traditional African instruments (the kora, djembe, and calabash).  I was a big fan. This is the inside of the mosque: 

Our one day stop in Thies included a visit to the artisanal village where the artists were especially testy bargainers.  I have learned that I am not the best bargainer.  Making a living as an artist is hard in any country, so I feel like they could use the extra 500 CFA and throw in the towel.  My strategy has become: they say their price, I say mine, they lower theirs a bit, I stick with mine, and when they are unwilling to accept my price, I say for example, “2000 CFA or I leave”.  They stare at me blankly, I start to walk away, then they call out, “Ok, 2000 CFA”.  It seems to be working.  Too bad we don’t bargain for everything in the U.S…by the time December rolls around I’ll be pretty good at it!
Next we headed to a sous verre (glass painting) studio.  On the way, one of our professors, Linda Robinson, on the bus pointed to an old man on the street and yelled to the bus driver to stop.  Turns out they are old friends! He is Ablaye Ndiaye Thoissane, one of the most celebrated Senegalese painters.  He has an exhibit right now at the Institut Francais du Senegal! Ablaye accompanied us for the rest of the day, which was so Senegalese.  It was a total coincidence we saw him on the side of the road, let alone Linda knows him from year ago.  He just hopped on our bus—his afternoon plans becoming our afternoon plans.  This just goes to show how free flowing life is in Senegal.  People want to be together and share experiences.  After the sous verre studio, those of us who were interested visited Ablaye’s workshop (picture below). 

And here is a fresh sous verre piece.  The artist did this in literally 4 minutes, it was amazing.

En route to the villages in northernmost Senegal, we stopped at the Touba Mosque, the 2nd biggest mosque in the world!  The moment we arrived, I became fully aware that I am in a Muslim country.  As a woman, I had to don a headscarf, and we weren’t allowed to even enter the mosque because we are not Muslim.  On Fridays, Touba becomes the 2nd largest city in Senegal.  Thousands and thousands of people flock to Touba to observe the Friday afternoon prayer in the most holy space in Senegal.  What I found fascinating about the Touba mosque is that it provides water, and water purification to the masses that worship there.  In a time and place where water difficult to come by, Touba’s commitment to the people’s wellbeing is especially admirable.

Then we left.  I felt a bit like I was taking a tour bus around the country.  Before arriving in the villages we stopped to see a sacred baobab tree on the side of the road.  Not only is this baobab HUGE, there is a griot (a Senegalese storyteller) buried IN the tree.
Me climbing the tree:

Finally after a full day of travel we made it to the villages where we spent the next four days.  My legs appreciated the opportunity to stretch.  We were spilt up between three villages: Mouit, Mumbai, and Tassinere.  I stayed in Tassinere, a village of 3,000 people located 18km south of Saint Louis.  The family I stayed with is heavily female dominated.  Miriam Diallo (probably about 65) lives there with her husband, her two daughters Fatou (in her late 40s) and Almata (in her 30s).  Fatou has an 18 year old daughter Yaram whom I bonded with, and Almata has a gaggle of kids under 5.  They greeted me with hugs and kisses on the cheek, and within minutes of my arrival, I was de-scaling fish and chopping onions.  Food preparation is a major part of village life.  A typical day in the village went like this: wake up around 8, breakfast, clean up, some type of activity like a walk, or getting henna on my hands, prepare lunch, eat lunch around 2, clean up, lounge/nap on mats outside for the rest of the afternoon, prepare dinner, eat dinner around 9:30, clean up, talk while lounging on mats outside, go to bed.  The life style if very much day to day, meal to meal.  There is anxiety about the future or dwelling on the past.  They went to the boutique (little food shop) before each meal to buy only what was needed right then.  My time in the village was “living in the moment” in the purest form.  There is no pressure to entertain or be entertained.  Being with family, neighbors, and friends is all that matters.  Not once with my family did I feel like a student, visitor, or volunteer.  They opened their life to me for four days, and that’s just what we did. We LIVED together.  If you take away money, geography, race, religion, and everything else that pulls us apart on this planet, we are all humans and we are all alive.  I truly felt connected with my family in the village.  We lay out under the stars with an evening breeze blowing in off the river, having conversations in broken French and Wolof.  Fatou called me her sister, her friend.  I will definitely be going back for a visit in November.

Here is my house in the village, you can see Fatou on the left preparing food.
A woman in the river, a common sight in the village:

The village stay was by in large the highlight of my time in Senegal so far.  Here is a picture of my, Yaram, and her friends at the Sabar dance.  All of us students gathered with our village families for a traditional Sabar dance.  The 21 of us were the worst dancers there, but it was so much fun to see each other in African dress and jump around in the sand. Here I am, all dressed up, with Yaram (just to my right) and her friends before the Sabar dance.

An action shot from the Sabar:

It was very sad to leave Tassinere, but Saint Louis came as a welcome return to some of the comforts of home, like showerheads, air conditioning, and sleeping with covers!  Saint Louis is the oldest and northernmost city in Senegal, basically on the border of Senegal and Mauritania.  It was colonized by the French and was the capital of West Africa in the 1800s.  The Frech influence is evident in the architecture.  I was happy be spend time in a historically rich city, it reminded me of home.  The city is partially on an island between the Senegal River and the ocean.  Our hotel was on this island, which is navigable by foot, so I got to know the neighborhoods.  This was the biggest difference between Dakar and Saint Louis.  Walking around in Dakar means getting honked at by taxis, dodging motorcycles, goats, and begging children.  In Saint Louis, I could walk in the middle of the street and not encounter a moving vehicle for minutes at a time, yet the city doesn’t feel empty. 

Here are some pics of Saint Louis, including the Bou el Mogdad (the boat).  I did a small research project on this boat, on old ferry that now offers 6 day cruises down the Senegal river.   

Coming back to Dakar last weekend, I felt like I was coming back to a city that I now know.  I know how life works here, and when I walked to school alone on Sunday, I felt like I know exactly what I was doing, and it felt great!