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!

1 comment:

  1. Your observations about the people of Senegal and what you are learning from them is so inspiring ! Thank you for sharing that with us all.
    I particularly liked your observation about the Touba Mosque and its sharing of purified water with the masses. Water truly is a most precious resource in an arid country like Senegal.