As a travel blogger, one thing I’ve successfully avoided in my travel blog is any semblance of me blogging about my travels… Sure, those deep moments will always stick with me, and (In’challah) with you. But, I’ve so far successfully painted a picture of Senegal which is but a thread of the masterpiece I’ve see woven before me every day.
Once again, addressing the aforementioned dark in which I’ve shamelessly left you, I’m going to assume you know nothing about my life here. So, for the basics: I live in the respectable domicile of the Sow family of Mermoz, Dakar. My brothers are Ousmane, (aka Papi), Amadou, Moustapha, and What’s-his-face-that-now-lives-in-Paris. I also live with my awesome 10-year-old nephew, Ameth. I’ve been ceremoniously named Modou, following what appears to be a law that deems virtually everyone in all of Dakar must given an Islamic name. I really have no idea how people keep track. I have about four friends named Mamadou, six named Ousmane, and another twelve who go by Papi. It is pretty interesting, however. So I’ve learned from my History of Islam course, taught by the Dakarois celebrity Abdoul Aziz Kebe, the practice of Islamic naming was adopted as a method to solidify the Islamic community and to differentiate from those African tribes known for the violent human hunts associated with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Anyway…
Ibrahima and Coumba are my, respectively, woefully detached father and painfully protective mother. At least I’m getting the real show. I’ll explain: Sow is a name traditionally attributed to the Peul people of Senegambia, and on top of being an impossible background to visibly distinguish from the 10 or so other African ethnic groups in Senegal, it succeeds in being one of the most impossible words to pronounce. Forget tuyau or rencontrerons with a faithfully glottal /r/, or even doodle for francophones (seriously, try asking them to say it.) The word Peul is an awful hybrid of the words pull, pole, and pool. Add in the fact that the Senegalese accent is, albeit really cool and filled with bouncy vowels, a nightmare for the Academie Française. What you get is an embarrassing mouth cramp and an amusing misunderstanding wherein which you tell your Senegalese host family that they’re a bunch of sweatshirts—pull in French.
Either way, Peul mothers are referred to as hens. True to form, Coumba’s brand of love feels a lot like what I’d expect getting hit by a gladiator net to feel like. Needless to say, super-protection is her MO. No discussion is held when it comes to what she wants. And that’s not because I don’t have anything to say, or that I’d prefer to remain silent to preserve the calm. No—instead, every time I’d venture to say something to the effect of, ‘I am an autonomous human being who has come here to experience Dakar and Senegalese culture, not your living room,’ I’m quickly and harshly interrupted with the twentieth reprise of whatever ridiculous thing she’s holding against me at the moment (i.e. that I’m untrusting and am convinced that the entire family is obsessed with my belongings and wants to steal them). My father, on the other hand, is pretty disinterested. His favorite thing to do between meals is sit alone watching soccer on his 72” TV. His actual favorite thing to do is to eat meals while sitting alone watching soccer on his 72” TV. I really haven’t heard much about what stereotypes Peul fathers follow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the rough translation went something like, “They don’t give a damn.” It’s not a big deal, really. I just have no inclination whatsoever to live here next semester.
It’s not all bad, by any stretch. The days of serenity between my host mother’s outbursts are common, and I often make her laugh to lighten the mood. She calls me a Saay-saay, which means “player,” in both the sense of a jokester, and that of a playboy. True, the ideal Senegalese man is supposed to be a player of sorts. However, if you know me, you can probably guess that the character of “the player” is one I simply cannot pull off. Duma saay-saay is my token response.
To allude to my nephew’s birthday party: neither my father nor my brother Amadou, who happens to be the father of the birthday boy, Ameth—who I also used to think was my brother—attended. They were downstairs watching TV while me, my American housemate Tim, and a throng of tiny, impeccably dressed youngsters were all on the roof-terrace, dancing in the dark and the flashing lights to Papi’s amateur remixes of the Guana, eating heavenly cake and fataya. I’m not even sure if it was good cake, really. I certainly had been warned upon arrival here: following a protein-rich diet will undoubtedly lead to sugar cravings. That was well understood. What I didn’t understand before arriving here, though, was what a sugar craving really is. We all love chocolate, save for you Dad, but normally wanting sweets is more like wanting to bask in a bit of luxury for a short while and less like a zombie obsession which spurs you in its bloodlust. It’s as close as I’ve ever been to insanity. That cake could have been made out cardboard. But it had sugar, and that’s all that mattered to me.
The Senegalese family tree is pretty crazy, on that note. Those who are technically your cousins on your father’s side are actually referred to as your brothers and sisters. This would be easy enough if it weren’t also Senegalese custom to call all older males your uncles, Tonton, and all older women your aunts, Tanta. Or if they didn’t introduce pretty much every one of their friends and neighbors as being your brothers and sisters. Or if it were even clear at this point whether or not they even know who’s who.
Mermoz is a small yet vibrant neighborhood of Dakar Fann, complete with everything from a mosque to a boulangerie to as many identical boutiques as you’d could ever imagine wanting in a square mile plot. The standout boutique is the one on the corner of my street which sells makeshift burgers out of chocolate and butter, or sausage and cheese, depending on your preference, for the drool-worthy price of 50 cents. American. Dollars. Personally I feel bad about how advantageous the dollar is here. Thinking about every weekend when I’m haggling fiercely with a taxi driver over what comes to be a grand difference of about 40 cents makes me feel a little ungrateful.
Quite tragically, there are a large number of streetwalkers who ask for money and food. Their situations are unenviable, to put it very lightly. The most tragic are the Talibé, small boys who are students at Koranic schools. They are sent from all around the country to be instructed in the words of the Koran, a route seen traditionally as a parent’s way of giving a much better life to their son than they had: they were never asked to be sent.
They are clothed, fed, and lead in their studies by Marabouts, the religious leaders of local Islamic Brotherhoods. These Marabouts are way over their heads in children, and although their political and social power is mighty, they simply don’t have the means to feed and teach the hundreds of kids they’re struggling with. So, during the day, they are sent out onto the street to kick rocks and dodge the scorching sun. They are charged with a dirty yellow tin and a single word: sarax. Please. If they don’t come home with enough money, they are beaten.
It just kills me to see people begging on the street. However, more on a matter of principle than anything, it’s pretty insulting when the Talibé beggar boys see you from hundreds of yards away and quite visibly plan their “casual approach” to ask you for money just because you’re white and, stereotypically, you’ve got money. I almost didn’t even go to Dakar because I waited so long to get a ticket, hoping to scrounge out one of those cheap and desperate final spots. But their methods are as racist as they are insulting. I don’t have to describe what it feels like to be profiled. You know when it’s happening. It rears its head as a twist of the neck, a double-take, and a quick change of vector to a collision course with you.
Personally, I like conversations. For that express reason do I abhor when my host mother interrupts whatever I might like to say: at that point it has ceased to be a conversation. Also for that reason, I naively enter into conversations with most everyone on the street. I’m pretty much trusting to a fault, and I’ll let anyone walk me anywhere they want, even stupidly, as I’ve come to realize, to ATMs. I’ll let them chat about terranga, the local custom of hospitality, basically an unspoken agreement among the families who belong to the one big Senegalese family that their sons will always be taken care of wherever they go. To me, this tradition translates to a heaping pile of food at every meal and the license to go up to any door in Senegal, ask to use the bathroom, and subsequently be obliged. Directly after they tell me how nice their country is and how kind its people are, I get offered necklaces as gifts and get incessantly harangued for money for this guy’s son’s baptism, or that lady’s hungry baby back home. …I was just enjoying the company of a local…I had no idea I was getting myself into this.
And the decisions about how to help are nearly impossible to make. Between figuring out if they’re serious and that they actually need the help, or if they’re lying to me, or even how much to give them or whether I should buy them food, I get so flustered and caught up that I barely notice the fingers creeping towards my pockets. I want to help. I really do. But Senegal has really made me question what sort of help is actually helping, and not inadvertently hurting. Just like a blood transfusion, foreign aid needs to be natural, and compliant. If you put a certain type of aid into the wrong cultural milieu, it won’t take. In some cases it gets violently rejected. I’m not “foreign aid” per se, but I have means that didn’t exist in the system before I got here. Where they go does make a difference. And whether the 10 000 francs CFA I accidentally let go is making sure Moustapha’s baptism reception will have enough couscous or is instead supporting begging and economic dependency is of no small consequence.
Mermoz really is a spectacular place. It’s filled with friendly faces that, as I pass by their many stoops and makeshift roosts, call me over and teach me the newest and most in vogue Wolof phrases, all the while laughing at my inevitable, comical confusion. My favorite: Yaangi chill? Ruthlessly shanghaied from English, this really only means, “You chill?” Actually, my real favorite stands to be Naka muu? because I use it all the time and really still have no idea what it means. These tiny groups line the many, networked alleyways which weave intricately through the neighborhood. These tiny paths are sandy and asymmetrical, sometimes even downright dirty and rubble-strewn. They have the air of being kind of crooked, like living challenges to Renaissance art. Like delicately placed veins, they give a veritable, even mystical pulse to the city, and as they thread the tin roofed, stucco houses and makeshift basketball courts, they twist and turn and connect randomly as if they had a fear of being mapped. People have no right-of-passage over the migratory goats, dogs, and toads who use the alleys with equal fervor. My entire universe was shattered when, on one day early on in my stay before I had figured out the lay of the land, I walked aimlessly around the neighborhood trying to find my way. At one point I got lost, only to realize that I had actually ended up standing right in front of my very own house.
Every morning from the boutique my mother goes out early and picks up two batons of bread for breakfast. We buy chocolate bread, preloaded with a thick layer of chocolaty, pasty goodness, most likely for the dual purpose of 1) actually making me want to get up early in the morning and 2) masking all the bleaching and other treating processes this bread quite obviously, yet oddly, goes through. I guess it’s not that weird that they want to make sure the bread is clean, especially in a highly populated city. But you’d never expect bread this ghastly shade of white to come out of a traditional bakery. It’s nothing like tapalapa, the thick, well-kneaded, whole-grain bread my friends and I enjoyed in the Basari Country in the southeast of Senegal over Fall Break. Boy, did we bien mangé down there. For those of you who haven’t tried warthog: Pumbaa has many more qualities than simply his undying loyalty to lions and established monarchy.
To go with my breaded chocolate, I’ve actually become accustomed here to drinking coffee, which is far away from the norm for me. Not so much for the taste, and certainly not for the marginal effects I get from it, I’ve used it to supplement the juice I’d normally drink for breakfast. Juice, while available here, is expensive and small in portion-size. Plus, I can’t deny the fact that having juice outside the house necessitates a higher intake of water, a practice from which everyone can benefit.
The food here is more or less incredible. The formula is pretty consistent: a base of a sizeable amount of very oily rice (depending on the dish, actually), thrown in a big bowl and tossed with vegetables (mostly starches and local tubers, but occasionally including cabbage and what looks like a small under-ripe pumpkin which, frankly, tastes like death), and finished off with either whole fish or meat. Originally, or so I’ve inferred from some scattered conversations between my father and mother, oily rice was seen as a status symbol amongst the families of Senegal. I think as the caste system has become more or less outdated, so has the practice of using oil to and end other than cooking. Dakar, having drawn all ethnic groups from far and wide, has become regarded widely as the most cosmopolitan city in West Africa. It would seem that the cuisine here has followed the trend of integration the city has laid down.
Sure, my ceebu jen, the national dish of rice and fish, leaves oily smears on the side of the bowl. But when we have yassa, a dish of chicken/fish and a delicious onion sauce traditionally associated with the Djola, I’m not sure if even a drop of liquid lipid hits the plain white rice. My personal favorite, mafe, is a Bambara dish made with white rice and peanut sauce. It’s almost like eating peanut butter, but not quite. I’ll make do, though, because among the many things I’ve missed about home being so far away, from fall, to pumpkin cake, to apple crisp and other apple sports, to non-powdered milk, to my Dad’s stupid humor, peanut butter was the least expected to make the list. It’s just nearly impossible to find in the form we’re all used to. Sure, one of Senegal’s main exports is peanuts, but we Americans just love large volumes of salt and all those delicious unnaturals that make Skippy stick so happily to the top of your mouth.
I humbly expect all of those aforementioned cravings of mine to be satisfied upon my return. Preferably the moment I get off the plane. I’m sure you can do it, Mom and Kate. I know for a fact you can do it, Dad.