Monday, September 25, 2006

Islam and the family: If don't understand them, you don't understand Senegal

I'm sitting in my computer lab at Suffolk University. I spent the whole 30 minute walk here thinking about how nice the air conditioning would be when I got here. It is. There is a class going on in this computer lab. The professor is explaining to the Senegalese students what snow is like, because she used to live in New England. There is a picture of house covered in snow from Google. She just finished miming how to shovel snow. She said snow is like that feeling when you stick your hands a freezer, only all over your body. The students are watching and smiling, incredulous.

Ramadam started yesterday, and since I didn't have breakfast I'm trying to sneak little bits of bread from my bag into my mouth because I'm not sure if it's right to eat or drink in public during Ramadam. My family asked me if I was going to do Ramadam. I tried to explain to them that I don't know why I would do something without knowing the significance of it. It would be like "doing Lent" to give up chocolate.

They were really surprised that I've never fasted before, becuase they assured me that the Catholics in senegal also do Ramadam. I told them I wasn't Catholic, and they said but I thought you were Christian. I said yes prostants are christians too. They were surprised at this too. Maybe once I learn the signifiance of Ramadam I might try it a few days. I would eat breakfast at 6am and not eat or drink anything until 7pm. I just learned from the world wide web that fasting is the third pillar of Islam. Ramadam falls on the ninth month according to the lunar calendar. On the 27th day of Ramadam, the Koran was revealed to the prophet, and the Koran says that this day is better than a thousand months.

I think my host dad has the koran in english and I plan to read it. Learning more about Islam is one of my goals here in Senegal. Without understanding Islam, I don't think I'll ever be able to understand life here. One of the aspects of Islam that all the American students and I are so curious about is, of course, polygomy. Our professor said that polygomy is based off the verse in the Koran that says (and this is not the direct quote) "take another orphan if it will help them, but only if you can treat all of them equally." This was because after the "great wars" (i'm not sure which one/s he was speaking of) many women were husbandless and many children fatherless, so the Koran allowed a man to take another family if that family needed a male provider. Many American students here have a host mom that is co-wife. They don't see their host dad very often, even though he is required by Islam to spend an equal amount of time with all of them.

Back in the days, a woman might not ever know that her husband would take another wife until the iman (the man that reads the Koran the local mosque) came to her house and told her that her husband had taken another wife. This is the premise of an amazing book I just read by the Senegalese woman author Mariama Ba, Une si longe lettre, or So Long a Letter. Nowadays, when a couple is married they decide to sign for polygomy or monogomy. If they sign for monogomy he can not take another wife. But the thing is, it's not a co-sign. The couple may choose to discuss the decision, but if they don't, the man decided on his own and signs on his own. My professor told me that most men want to sign for polygomy mainly because if their wife divorces them (which women can do here just as easy as in the West), they don't want to be stuck without a wife while waiting for the trail proceedures to go through. If they sign for polygomy they can get another wife right away.

Islam came to Senegal at the end of the 10th century, and ever since then has blended with the traditional beliefs held before the coming of Islam--beliefs like those I wrote about earlier. Many of us Americans didn't understand how they two religons could blend, because, after all, doesn't Islam say that there is only Allah? The prof said that any Muslim here would respond," I depend on Allah, but I am who I am." Many people still go see the traditional medicene healers, pay attention to signs from their ancestors, and believe in the jinns that I wrote about earlier. It's also very common to visit the marabout (religous leader, may be Muslim, may be not) and have him bless certain things, like your pen before you take your final. The underlying belief is that what you do on your own is never enough, you need the blessings from the marabout to suceede. The marabout might also give you a grigri to wear, a good luck amulet looking like a small leather bag. Every kid under three years old wears one in senegal.

The professor is still talking about snow. Now she's showing them how to make a snow angel.

So Long a Letter also helped me understand the importance of family in Senegalese society.
Take this passage:

"One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when the lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end" (pg 83).

Family isn't an obligation like we think of it in the US of A. It's not like you have your friends and your own goals and dreams and then you have to make time for your family. There is just the family. There is no personal sucess, only family sucess. I've been trying to adopt this way of thininking, but my efforts only make me more aware of how far removed I am from this way of thinking. It's hard to shed years of self-imposed pressure to make the best of myself, of my education, etc. Sometimes it's a liberating feeling, like shedding off all these winter coats I've found I never really needed. Sometimes it's hard, like when I stayed in with my family all day Saturday. None of them really get out of the house much. It's hard for someone that loves to be outside and stay active and work on projects. It's easy to feel sluggish, with the heat and all the television-watcthing, the favorite pastime of everyone is Senegal.

Development in Senegal will never be orchestrated by those who have never lived with a Senegalese family. The family and the Muslim leaders are the forces that conduct development--no matter how well-educated or well-dressed or fluent in Wolof and French the World Bank employee may be. Society status means everything. To have nice things means everything. To maintain a good home means everything. These things effect the rate at which children are educated, determines which children are educated, and determines who gets a job.

Mariama Ba says it well: "The nation is made up of families, rich or poor, united or separated, aware or unaware. The success of a nation therefore depends inevitably on the family."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

It's not a normal day in dakar unless...

1) A fly attacks my face
2) The power goes out 3 or 4 times.
3) The power goes out in the computer lab and I loose a really long personal email I was writing.
4) I notice a baobab tree on my normal 30 minute walk to school that I had never noticed before.
5) I eat something new.
6) I pull a bone out of something new I've eaten.
7) I go into a gas station (here it's either "Elton" or "On the Run") just to savor the air conditioning.
8) I think of Austin at least three times.
9) I miss my road bike.
10) I miss my family.
11) I greet someone (a stranger) in wolof and they get a huge grin on their face and we end up having a 5 minute conversation, usually ending with "come by here tommorrow, I'll teach you wolof"
12) I buy a banana from one of my fruit stand friends: either Mamadou or Carolyn.
13) I pass my favorite goat friend Sparticus.
14) I wonder when sparticus will no longer be there.
15) Someone is frustrated because they can't understand my french.
16) About 5 taxi cabs pull over as if I had waved them down on my way to school.
17) About 15 taxis honk at me on my way to school.
18) I smell something that disgusts me (pile of trash, rotting fish, stagnant water).
19) I learn 3 or 5 new sentences in wolof.
20) I sit on the second story of Suffolk University and watch the ocean a while.
21) The bakset weavers I pass on my way to school invite me to drink tea (attayah) with them.
22) I barter the price for a taxi, and even if I use wolof, still feel a bit ripped off because I am a toubab (white).
23) Have to tell several begger children I have no money. (lie).
24) I think about how much I love my new host family.
25) I wish I could remember everything to share with people back home.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

for now, all my pictures will be on the facebook. it's too hard to add them to this blog. email me if you are having trouble finding them on facebook or you can't access facebook

I went jogging this morning. I think jogging in my neighborhood outside Dakar may summarize what it’s been like to live here over the past four or five days.

I leave the dorms of Suffolk University, where we are staying for the moment, with Natasha and Anna around 7:30 a.m. There is a strong breeze coming off the ocean so it is remarkably cool. Much different than how it normally feels to walk around outside. Think: walking through sand in downtown Houston in the middle of July with a wool sweater around your mouth.

The director of our program told us to jog to the post office and take a right and head down the road that goes along the beach, la Corniche. We start out. Taxis are honking every time they pass, trying to give a ride to the only white people on the street, assuming they can rip us off because we don’t know French or Wolof and we have lots of money to toss around. Nothing unusual. I enjoy the scenery (concrete buildings, palm trees, orange flower trees, small baobab trees, fruit stands, women in beautiful dresses with head wraps, men in long Arabic-looking robes) because I have to watch my feet and step over chunks of concrete, piles of trash, mounds of dirt, around small begging children, and broken down cars. Many times our 20 feet of blissful, paved sidewalk erodes and we are pinned between the broken cars and traffic so we have to jog/carefully walk in a single file line. The road smells like a combination of trash and the go-kart ring at a putt-putt golf course. That cheap, leaky kind of gasoline.

LA POSTE! Finally we turn off that crazy road (Cheick Anti Diop or Route d’Ouwakam) and jog down a more quite road lined with evenly-spaced trees. Each home has a large, concrete wall surrounding it and a security guard in front at all times. (Most homes are like this, but these in particular are ambassador homes.) We greet all the security guards; in case one day we are jogging and we get into trouble, the guards will help if they know who we are:


Malekum salam.

Nanga nga def?

Maangi fi rekk.

Ana wa ker ga?

Nunga fa.

Ba beneen.

Ba suba.

A greeting less than that long is considered rude. Finally we turn down la Corniche and see the ocean crashing against black rocks. In the distance, we see cliffs bordering the ocean, topped with mosques.

That is beautiful—but there is giant wall of aluminum separating our view from the ocean. And lots of seemingly-freshly-razed land for construction. Everything is under construction.

So we run and I blink sand out of my eyes and think about yesterday and how hard it was. We learned about many values of the Senegalese at this eight hour orientation, which I would have thought would have made me really excited.

You see, I also thought standing on top of a mountain would make me really excited. But I have this feeling that, above the tree line, if trees can’t survive I shouldn’t be able to either.

Yesterday I realized there are so many beliefs that clash with the Western way of life. It is so easy offend someone here, unintentionally and unconsciously.

This is the most surprising thing. Traditional Senegalese religion has a belief in these spirits called the jenni that are always listening to what people say in the mortal world. They are interested in destroying what is good and beautiful. So if they here you tell someone that there child is smart or beautiful, they may come after that child. But they can only do so by invading the body of the person that said the compliment, and separating the soul from the body, making them a demm. A demm is like a witch who has a third eye and can see into people’s souls and move the powers of nature to do evil. Say the next day the child fails the test at school. The mother may remember that you said their child was beautiful and whisper to others that you are a demm. It while take a while for them to accuse you to your face, but they will go around whispering and you’ll gather a bad reputation. The only way to get the demon out of you is for them to call a marabout that is a healer/traditional medicine doctor and exorcise the demon out of you. Of course every family in Senegal is different, but many people are still accused of being demms. It’s just about the worst thing you can accuse someone of being, because demms are thought to be inherited and it will be a big shame to the rest of your family.

So when I go to live with my host family, I can’t compliment anything physical (the home, their looks, their clothes), quantify or qualify anything, esp when it comes to babies or pregnant women, or count people or animals. Counting calls the attention of the jenni. So no asking how many brothers someone has.

Getting to know my host family, then, will be much different than in America, where getting acquainted involved asking lots of personal questions. But for all those differences, I know I’ll get used to them and there are so many beautiful traditions we learned about:

Teranga (hospitality to guests and foreigners), kersa (the balance of respect for yourself and for others), garabam (a person’s remedy is another person), and the importance of greeting everyone you meet.

But there are other things that will take more time, like eating the traditional Senegalese meal: you sit on mats around a bowl of rice, fish, meat, and vegetables. Everyone dips in with their right hand, gets a handful of rice and meat, squeezes out the fish juice to form a ball of rice, then eats it. It’s so hard to form a ball of rice, and is a really uncomfortable position to sit in for a long time, especially in the long skirts women have to wear before eating.

I guess it’s just bizarre to be so aware of my identity. Learning Wolof will really help me to negotiate with people. I’m taking a class in it and my host family will surely help me. And I love speaking Wolof. I’m moving in with my host family tomorrow. All I know is that my host mother’s name is Madame Sow and she lives in a residential neighborhood about 30 min walking distance from the school, called Sacre Coeur.

As we finished our jog, we waved at a two and three-year-old who waved back, alternating between that slow, bewildered toddler-wave and turning their hand over to cup it, as a beggar does.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Why I got this lettuce on my head?
Because my red hair is falling out.
I'm a
Lunch lady, lunch lady, lunch
Slop, slop, Sloppy joe
Slop, slop, Sloppy joe

Thank you, Jonathan Anderson, for teaching Dallas and me this song.
It's very fun to sing.