Category Archives: Sarai in Senegal

La Poubelle

Waste and conservation:

The way waste is dealt with here seems to be on two polar opposite sides of the spectrum.  As in many poorer nations, some things are recycled and reused and sometimes transformed into different objects altogether.  Bottles, for example, are never thrown out.  Liter bottles are reused by women who fill them with water and freeze them to sell them to drivers who want a cold but cheap drink.  Larger ten liter jugs I have seen reused by cutting off the top and putting a candle in to make a lantern that blocks the wind; kind of like a jack o’lantern but transparent.  Even individual families use the liter (or around that size) bottles to store homemade juices.  Glass bottles get recycled either by specific boutiques (which is like a corner store) or by the company.   Boutiques often ask you to drink what you have purchased and bring the bottle back- even the next day so that they can use it or receive the few cents they would get for recycling it with a larger company.  I don’t feel as bad for buying drinks from bottles here, because bottles have a long, long life.

But it’s as if bottles are the only trash that is dealt with in such a green manner.  Littering is like an epidemic and many of the streets are filled with it.  There are entire fields in some areas that seem to be designated as the trash fields.  Sometimes they burn the garbage to keep it down, and sometimes it just rots in its place.  When having a conversation with a Senegalese man my own age, he simply did not even understand why we, my friends and I, were wondering about the trash.  Our concern really did baffle him.  When he was asked why people littered so much, he asked why not.  When the issue of the health of the earth was brought up he simply could not see how the garbage could hurt the earth.  It seemed the same to him.  And when we tried even further to reach him by asking if it bothered other people he said it didn’t bother him, so why should it?  And to look around, it really doesn’t seem to bother anyone but those who aren’t used to it.  People walk by, though, around and on trash every day to wherever they are going and it is fine.  The smell of rotting, and worse, of burning of toxic chemicals is not uncommon.  I’m not even sure if there is an actual waste transport system because if there is, the government really needs to step it up because it’s not doing anything.  And in children’s’ classrooms that I have volunteered in, there are posters exclaiming ‘La terre n’est pas une poubelle!’ meaning ‘the earth/ground is not a trashcan!’  This is a good tactic to teach children of the long term repercussions- knowledge that seems to be lacking even in adults- but there are no alternatives.  There are not trashcans on the street like in Chicago or other US cities, so children are expected to carry their empty yogurt bags and such for long walks and during school?  That is a rather unreasonable request for a six year old, I think.  Garbage cans are even lacking in some households, save the kitchens perhaps.  It’s a rather sad phenomenon, this garbage issue, which is not only accepted by the culture, but in some ways is perpetuated.

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Traveling: A Blessing, Not a Brutality

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance, nothing is yours except the essential thing- air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky- all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” Cesare Pavese

I for one cannot identify with this statement in the slightest. Senegal is nicknamed the ‘paye de tarranga,’ meaning the country of hospitality; I have been aided and welcomed on several occasions by complete strangers. You create your own niche and learn to thrive without that which you once thought was vital; you learn to minimize and roll with the punches. It makes you honestly grateful for what you have stumbled onto and hungry to see and experience more.

During the three months that I’ve been in Senegal, I have also gone on week long trips and weekend trips- further removing me from the home away from home I have made in Dakar. I think that it is actually quite the opposite of the above quote! Yes, traveling forces you to trust strangers, but if you have your wits about you, that is not always a bad thing and you end up meeting really cool people in the most random situations. On my trip through The Gambia, for example, I met these two brothers at a hotel we were staying in for a few nights. We had tea and talked and I was even invited to dine with their family for lunch. It was fantastic; I had made a new friend in one afternoon! And when my traveling companions and I had to set off the next day, he helped us to get where we were going simply out of the kindness and kindred ship we had formed the day before. And this type of situation where I have been greatly helped by strangers is not an uncommon occurrence. This has taught me how closed off and individualistic the United States are. Everyone is looking out for themselves, not for the good of the whole or strangers- at least that’s not what I’ve noticed in Chicago! It is so refreshing and instead of having nothing, everything becomes yours! And not yours for the taking, but yours for the sharing! You find new comforts that you didn’t even know you enjoyed and make new homes with your companions! Unfamiliar things become familiar! It was a turning point for me when we were coming home from the Gambia and realized when we got into Dakar how much it felt like we really were coming home! The car rapides, the herds of goats, the cacophony that is the market- all things that were once so foreign to me and now I can navigate with ease.

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.…by which I mean French bread. The residue of French colonial influence is still ripe here. Besides the national language being French, I eat baguette for nearly every meal- with Nutella for breakfast, croissants and crepes are also common bakery items, there are crazy round-abouts with no traffic signals or signs, and straight hair for ladies is a norm. It’s ironic to me that in America, there was a pro-black movement in which many decided to go natural and wear real and attempted African fabrics to connect to this wonderfully diverse continent, but here, they are still trying to be French. Even most elementary schools teach in French instead of a local mother tongue (Wolof in this case). But the worst of all of these is the prevalence of skin bleaching. I was told by my professor the other day that 50% of women here bleach their skin here! They buy random cocktails of chemicals to spread of their skin and there are even shots to look more European- or even just mixed; chemicals that leads to blotchiness, skin burning, and cancer…all to look like the colonialists who exploited, and continue to exploit them. It’s mind boggling. Some women have even said they do it to please their husbands, but why would a husband want the mother of their children to go through such dangerous measures for a very limited idea of beauty? It makes me sick and sad at the same time.

I have been doing mostly school related activities, as of late. Including dance and drum lessons I have started Tuesday and Thursday evenings. But rather than bore you with curriculum related ramblings for my first post, I thought I’d give you a tour of Dakar through a tubaab’s eyes (a tubaab is what they call foreigners here):

There are many smells in Dakar- some good, and some rather awful. The streets are speckled with vendors selling fruits and veggies (raw and cooked), nuts, cell phone credit, and many other items which either have no smell or smell delicious and fresh! There is also a heavy smell of pollution and exhaust, however. It seems there are no regulations here for car emissions, because it is not uncommon to see a taxi spewing a terrible black cloud behind it. This is perhaps, the strongest smell in the metropolitan area. Another rather unpleasant smell is the smell of rotting food and other garbage. The trash collection system here is rather lacking and since the sidewalks are large concrete slabs (much like in the US) situated over tunnel drain systems that are not covered, the smell leaks out- especially after a rain. There is also the smell of various farm animals that are common on the streets even downtown. The diversity of nasal sensations is quite grand.

On the roads of Dakar, the most frequent car is a black and yellow taxi. They honk as they pass pedestrians to signal that they are free because, unlike back home where it may be difficult to find a cab and people may even compete for one, it’s the taxis ho compete for costumers here. There are also car rapides, the public transportation here which are large vans painted brightly that cost about twenty cents. These are one of my favorite places to people watch and feel like a real local because everyone rides them, people with fancy suits as well as farmers! They are often cramped and hot, but the people in them are polite and will squish five people into a spot clearly intended for four. There are also Tatas, which are slightly larger and more expensive (which means by about five cents!) than the car rapides. Their functions, however, are fairly similar and they may only differ based on route.

There are many stray cats and dogs here. Cat lovers would crumble, because cats are considered vermin in Dakar and some families have dogs, but precious few. But it makes sense, if people are struggling to feed their families; they aren’t going to waste more food on an animal that doesn’t bring in any extra income of resources (milk, labor). It’s just as well to me, being allergic to cats and not too fond of dogs. Palm trees are one of the most common trees in Dakar, there is one outside my bedroom window; but if one were to venture out into more rural areas, the Baobab trees stud the landscape- an odd looking tree, also known as the ‘upside down tree,’ that Senegal is known for. There is a myth here that in the beginning, the baobab saw all the other slender trees with brightly colored flowers and fruits and wide glorious leave. It became jealous of these attributes and complained to the creator. The creator became quite annoyed with his work being criticized when he had made it perfectly so (s)he took the tree and turned it upside down where it could no longer see itself nor loudly complain. I have had the pleasure of tasting the juice of this tree, it is delicious thick nectar made by adding water to the powdery pulp of the fruit.

On my twenty minute walk to school, I pass women dressed in traditional Senegalese outfits of brightly colored fabric with head wraps for the older women. The men tend to dress in more western clothes, but there are still those who wear the traditional long robe-like top over pants and pointed toe shoes. The women’s’ clothes are much harder to explain because they are much more varied. Generally, they consist of either a dress or a top and a pagne, or wrap skirt. My mother here is a seamstress and owns a shop, so I have gotten some of these elegant clothes made! On the trip to school is also where I encounter many men who are not shy about being forward. For I, as well as all of the other girls in this program, have received multiple marriage proposals. It is insane, after a less than five minute conversation with someone on the street; they will jump to asking whether or not you have a husband. It is only because we are white and foreign, of course, so they assume we can offer them money and a ticket to America. It was funny at first, but now it’s downright annoying! I’ve started telling them that I’m married with five kids, which still only gets them away a percentage of the time! When I told my mother about these happenings, she thought my sharp response was amusing.

Jamm rekk (Peace only in Wolof)


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La Nouriture! (FOOD!)

Maangi lekk cebb u jen!
That means ‘I eat ceebu jen’ in Wolof. Ceebu jen is a traditional Senegalese dish of rice and fish. This meal takes hours of simmering to perfect the mixture of flavors. Although it is a must try here in Senegal, it is not actually my favorite dish. We eat a lot of rice and fish here, so my favorite dish is one that branches out from this. Although the elements are similar, rice, meat and vegetables, my favorite meal is called mafe (pronounced mah-fey). This is a dish that is smothered in a delicious peanut sauce. Peanut, or ground nut, is one of Senegal’s biggest exports, so they show up everywhere in the cultures landscape and food.

Meals in Senegal are eaten in a very different way from the way I eat meals at home. Like many African countries, we, mu family, eat from a communal plate. Rice fills this large dish and meat and veggies are placed in the middle for everyone to share. Some families eat with their hands, and we were taught to do so in a cultural lesson. My family uses spoons, but everyone takes from the center with their hands and from time to time, my mother uses her hands fully. In America, this would be seen as unappealing, everyone sharing one plate and all of their germs- our antiseptic ways would not tolerate it! Here, however, it brings the family closer and puts every member on the same level. The culture of sharing is also a very important attribute of many African societies, and this certainly holds true in Senegal. Separate plates imply separate entities and sole property, but as food belongs to all, no one should have their own personal bit, so we share everything there is. This contrasts to the American ideal that everyone has their own of something, whether it be land, money, or food. Although things like land and money are still possessed and kept within families, food is a gift for all who come during mealtimes. Sometimes we chat as we eat, and others we are content with the silence.

Another example of this hospitality and notion of sharing is in the tradition of ataya. Ataya is a potent West African tea that is made in a small tea pot and is drunk from small clear glasses, similar to shot glasses. There are two glasses to a set, so when one person finishes, the cup is refilled and passed to another. These tea parties sometimes take hours, for there are three stages or courses to ataya. People sit outside in small groups talking and enjoying each others’ company while also enjoying this sweet minty tea. I, myself, have been invited to take tea with people whom I hardly know and it brings us together instantly through their hospitality and my willingness to accept. This is just another way in which the sharing culture of Senegal is displayed, and it is a fantastic sentiment to their way of life!

Ba bennen yoon! (‘Until next time’ in Wolof)

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Fall Break 2011: La Gambie

Last week was fall break so a few friends and I decided to go to the Gambia. After some very stressful trips downtown, we finally received our visas, planned our itinerary, and were ready to head out and explore a new country with only our backpacks and our wits about us (and my trustee fanny pack, of course.)

Day 1- 9.24.11:
We decided to take a sept place from Dakar across the border, because it’s cheaper than a plane and faster than a larger public car. A sept place, meaning seven places, is a long distance taxi, also referred to as a ‘bush taxi.’ This Peugeot eight seater (including the driver) took us from the Garage Pompidou all the way to Gambia for about thirteen dollars. The garage was rather overwhelming with multiple drivers trying to get us to choose their particular mode of transportation, vendors trying to tempt us with a multitude of snacks, fruits, and random whatsits like watches and baby toy. We managed to weave our way through this cacophony of voices into our car and were on the road by seven, which was a feat, since we left our neighborhood at around six thirty. Most of the trip was uneventful, although there were a few police stops. The police here are so corrupt! There are checks every few hours and they can stop you on a whim for a bribe to be let free, in fact, a bribe fee is even included in the original price of transportation because it is so ingrained into the culture. Despite these few setbacks, it was a smooth journey. We even drove passed monkeys crossing the road. The driver must have thought we were insane tubaabs, going crazy over a few small monkeys, but since it was the first of them that any of us had seen since living in Dakar, we made our appreciation for the beats known with squeals and pointed fingers.

We finally arrived at the border. Customs was a joke. After having traveled in and out of United States customs, I was prepared for metal detectors, questions, hell even for them to ask me to open my luggage. None of the above happened however. The man at customs asked what we had and asked if we had any guns with a grin on his lips. We said no of course, but he simply laughed and waved us through to get our passports stamped. We were dumbfounded at how lax the system was!

From here, we took another sept place to Farafeni, where we were to meet up with one of my traveling buddy, Mary’s, friend Joanna, who is in the Peace Corps in the Gambia. We arrived and after waiting a few short hours at our rendezvous spot, finally met up with Jo, or Binta as they call her in the Gambia, and her friend Scott. We had dinner with them and found out later that night that the hotel we were all staying in doubled as a discotheque on Saturday nights! So we went to dance around ten thirty, and were of course, the first ones there. But since we had to travel early the next morning, we just decided to start dancing anyway- just a big circle of the seven of us tubaabs: the two Peace Corps members and my comrades Janelle, Carly, Hakima, and Mary, and I.   A few local teens started showing up too, and after some awkward trial maneuvering to get them to join us, we danced the night away (and by “away, I mean until only about 1am). And so we concluded our first Gambian night.

Day 2- 9.25.11:
After leaving Farafeni on a gelli gelli (pronounced with a hard G, not like jelly), the public transportation of the Gambia, we headed for Kuntaur for a river tour of River Gambia National Park. We had the boat to ourselves because Binta arranged the tour for us- she lives nearby and knew the owners well. It was fantastic! We saw chimpanzees, several kinds of monkeys and baboons, hippopotami, many beautiful birds, etc. Our guides glided us along the river explaining the history and the mission of this chimp rehabilitation center. We were told there were also snakes in the river, pythons and such, but we did not see any, to our sadness and relief.

After the tour, we took a horse cart to Binta’s village with her host father. The six of us, as Scott departed, stayed the night in her hut and were fed and greeted by the various members of her family, compound, and village. It was a wonderful night; they welcomed us with open arms. It must have been raining elsewhere, for we were given a lightning show to couple with the millions of stars that rural areas have access to.

Day 3- 9.26.11:
After a delicious breakfast of rice porridge made with sweet and condensed milk and peanuts cooked by Binta’s mother, we set off, once more on our travels- little did we know we were embarking on what was to be the more horrific day of travel out entire trip. We did not get a horse cart to leave the village, so we walked the hour to the ferry to cross the river. Evidence of the rain began to emerge, there were large puddles filling the road, so with my backpack balanced on my head, I took off my shoes and waded through the orange waters. It was a refreshing squishy feeling to my sweaty, tired feet, although the rust colored clay made them look spray tanned once it dried. The scene was beautiful, as everyone was wading in the above ankle waters and on their way to the market that happens every Monday. We made it to the ferry, crossed the river, and boarded a horse cart into town. Even after riding on one the day before, it still felt like a ride and I thoroughly enjoyed the entirety of this leg of the journey.

We split from Binta and Mary, who was to spend the rest of the week with her, at the market and boarded a gelli gelli towards our next destination, Kiang West National Park. We spent hours on this gelli gelli to get back to Farafeni where we took a taxi to another ferry and yet another taxi towards the park. This is where the unfortunate events of the day began, because we were tired from the four or more hours on the bumpy gelli and the taxi men we trying to swindle us because we were foreigners. And they would yell prices at us and wouldn’t budge when we attempted to bargain them down to the price we knew it should be. We finally got one man to bring it down at least a fraction, although not to our preferred price but had to go through the same ordeal on the other side of the river to get to yet another car park! We were tired of being yelled at and hassled and ripped off! We found another Peace Corps member who helped us bring down the price of our third taxi of the day, because he knew the language and we got in and made our way to the park. The taxi driver did not take us all the way there, however, so we had to either walk the 5k to finish the way or pay him more. It was nearing sundown, but we decided to walk anyway. It took us an hour and it was dark by the time we arrived to the hotel we had planned to stay at. Much to our dismay, it was nearly four times more expensive as we thought it would be and we had not gotten more money out of the bank in Farafeni, so we pleaded and bargained (a cultural attribute I’m liking more and more) until we got it from 450 Dalasi a person a night with breakfast to D500 for two nights without breakfast. I’d say we did well. So we settled in and at crackers and snacks we brought for dinner and planned our boat tour through the mangroves the next day.

Day 4- 9.27.11:
We woke up for our boat tour around eight and got into a pirogue that was, once again, populated by only us and our guides. We floated across the river and turned down a smaller path into the mangroves. It was low tide, the all of the mud and roots were exposed showing off the wonderful array of crabs and mud skippers- these weird half fish half frog things the slide through the mud and jump through the water. They were so cool! We also saw a crocodile, which we were told was rare at this time of year, and many birds and lizards. It was relaxing to just chill in the boat under the sun after such a hard day of travel the day before.

After the boat tour, we got some food- for luckily the hotel was able to exchange our CFA (Senegalese money) so we weren’t in such a rut. Since we were out of water, my comrades decided to make the 5k trek back to the nearest town to buy more and to also stock up on more snacks. I had already caved from thirst and had drunken the Gambian water, so I was not well enough to go. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguised because I stayed behind and drank ataya (a traditional West African tea) with some of the men that worked at the hotel, thus playing ambassador for our rather broke situation. It was nice, we chatted about language, travel, their politics, etc. One of them, Yusupha, even offered me to eat lunch with his family, which I was grateful to do! Even after we drove such a hard bargain, they were friendly and welcoming!

The other girls returned with a rather hilarious account of their desperate journey and we all decided to go swimming. A four foot, lukewarm pool never felt so good! And then we went for a walk to see a three hundred year old tree, play with some kids, and watch the sun set over the water. We also met a man who was trying to get a small motel and restraint catered to ecotourism (bikers, backpackers, and of course broke college kids) and we got a meal for under two bucks, D50 and met some Spanish bicyclists. We turned in early, as we had a car coming for us at six in the morn.

Day 5- 9.28.11:
Yet ANOTHER gelli gelli ride was necessary to get to our next destination near the Senegambia region. But since Yusupha lived nearby to where we were headed, he helped us get a taxi afterwards and a good price for a hotel, since we planned to stay there for the last few days of our trip. After he left, we decided to go to the beach for the rest of the afternoon. On the way there, we met these two girls selling peanuts, Rubi and her best friend who’s name, regretfully; I cannot even attempt to spell. They went swimming with us and were hilarious. We played hand clap games, running games, swimming games, errthang. They were so interesting to me because they seemed so much younger than their age in some ways, playing around in a very sporadic, whimsical way, but were also very much women in others, as they were selling peanuts to pay for their own educations. I admired their ambition.

Day 6- 9.29.11:
By this time in our trip, nearly every one of us has gotten sick. One of my friends was having tremors, however, so we took her to the nearby resort where some other CIEE kids were staying and she rested with them while the other three of us went in search of Tunbung, the artist village. We arrived, after first going to the wrong place, to a near empty village. Apparently, the artists were out on holiday to the Casamance, which we would have known had we called. But the younger brother of one of the artists was there and he gave us a very unofficial tour- to say the least. He came out wearing a purple tie dye man-dress and sandals. At first, he showed us the main gallery of his brothers work, which was a collection of bring and highly textured abstracts that I actually quite liked. Then, since he didn’t seem to know what to do with us, he went about the site showing us everything he thought might interest us- and then some. It was an interesting colony within the forest with doors that led to nowhere, chairs in trees, staple gun and alligator door handles, scattered sculptures, and wooden stumps serving at tables and chairs all around. People from all over come to visit and take classes at Tunbung for days, weeks, and even months. He showed us the room of the current apprentice who has been there for nine months. It was an awkward endeavor as he went through her sketches to show us her work and through her photos to show us pictures of her family. Hakima and I could hardly help ourselves from laughing as he then showed us every room, including Turkish style bathrooms and other seemingly random areas and I’m sure most tourists end up glazing over, but we got to see in depth. It was truly an original tour. I may not be describing it as hilariously as it occurred, but I am grinning as I write this just thinking about it! This place was amazing! We got to meet two of the farmers, two women who we in the field and we went out to visit. Our guide explained that they grow the rice, limes, peppers, eggplant, etc. to feed the guests. He showed us how they collected rain water through the roof that they cooked with and where the chickens were kept. There were buildings that had not yet been completed, and he explained that they found unused materials to recycle and use. It was a self sustainable world of creation our off beat guide fit the tempo of the place perfectly!

After we left the village, we went in search of mangos, but since it is no longer mango season this was not a success. We met some people who happened to have a mango tree in their back yard, and they threw rocks and sticks up at the tree to get us some, but they were not yet ripe. It was such a friendly gesture on their, part though! Gambia is far friendlier than Senegal, at times! We also met another two men on the road to our gelli gelli. They invited us to their compound in the nearby village of Tujering and gave us green oranges and avocados (the oranges grow green here, but they are still ripe. It’s bizarre). I decided to bring my portion of our booty home as gifts for my family.

Day 7- 9.30.11:
Our days in the Gambia were slowly coming to a close. For our last full day, we went to an artist’s market and shopped a bit and then went to Monkey Park, where there were so many monkeys up close! I got to pet them and would have been able to feed them had I thought to bring food with! It was a fun hike through trees and mud and monkeys. We then spent the day at the beach where we met back up with Binta for the day. We swam and searched for shells until dark.

For our last night, my four comrades decided to go out for a nice dinner since we had been reunited and survived out trip. We went out for pizza and we startled by the amount of obvious sex tourism that was present in the Senegambia- which is the ritzy, touristy area near the coast and the border of the two countries. We passed dozens of couples consisting of middle aged and older European women with young Gambian men. Binta told us of the popularity of women coming here to wine and dine their exotic, young men for a holiday and we even read about it in our guidebook! It was a tad creepy and rather sad to see in such large numbers.

We then went to a bar with Binta and met a bunch of the Peace Corps in Gambia who had gathered for the 50th year celebration. It was nice to talk and hang out with people living out what I have contemplated for my future since high school! It made me more excited for my rural visit this semester and to perhaps join the ranks once I graduate! We then went dancing with all of them. Since it was our last night in Gambia, we decided to stay out and then just catch a cab to take the ferry home and we’d sleep on the way. It was so fun to start and end the trip with dancing! And although the long journey home was hard due to lack of sleep, it was worth it!

We took a taxi, a ferry, a gelli gelli, and a sept place to the border and once everything was stamped, we crossed the border on a horse cart which we took to another sept place to Dakar. It was a ten hour trek, in all and I was both dirty and exhausted when I returned home. I had to wear a swimsuit top to school today because all of my clothes are still dirty from the adventure!

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