07 July 2011


Having wrapped up our first session last week, I 'ventured south with three of my friends here to a collection of fishing villages called Palmarin. 'Ventured, because travelling in Senegal is no easy task. Any major transport outside of the Dakar-Rufisque area requires a bush-taxi or sept-place. The taxi terminal is like a parking lot with spots demarquated in tye-dye. There's an order there but we couldn't discern it. After bargaining with a throng of drivers, we found one from Palmarin at a reasonable price, which was in our favor given that an hour of the drive was off-roading through sand flats that only a local could navigate. Once we arrived to the Gîte (bush hotel), we found ourselves to be the sole guests in an eco-oasis. Individual huts constructed from local thatch and mud with clean and rustic interiors, food caught/harvested and prepared on the same day, and a wide, albeit trash-strewn expanse of unadulterated (that is, by vendors) beach. The four friends that we made who managed the gîte took us on horseback excursions through the baobab groves, pirogue rides through the mangrove forests, and fishing trips along the banks of the Saloum River.

Unfortunately, I could not be completely at ease. One of the biggest lessons that I am learning here is to be aware of my skin color. Unlike most of my life in the United States, my skin makes me a minority in Senegal, a minority with a lot of stigma and history attached. White skin still bears the stain of colonization here, and I couldn't help feeling bothered when all white traveler's were waited on by an entirely black staff. Or when we rode through the nearby village on horseback, the image of Senegambia's first colonizers parading through villages on horseback changed our casual jaunt into an eery historical re-enactment.

03 July 2011

IL CHAUFFE DE! (Things are heating up)

June 16: President Wade (in power since 2001) announced his intentions to amend the constitution to include a vice-presidency as part of the executive branch of the Senegalese government. This VP would be chosen by the presidential candidate, who could equally fire the VP at will once elected. The fear has been that Wade, 86,  is trying to manipulate the government to allow his son to succeed him, thereby creating a sort of inherited monarchy within a democracy. Needless to say, the people of Senegal, a country known for its lack of coups d'état, did not support this decision. Moreover, Senegalese hold Wade's son, the minister of energy (among others), responsible for the constant electricity cuts that plague the entire country.Wade called the National Assembly to Dakar to vote on the constitutional amendment on June 26.

June 24: In outrage at Wade's blatant anti-democratic attempts at nepotism, Senegalese swarmed the centre ville of Dakar, establishing barricades of burning tires, cars, and rocks. Clashing with riot police, their tear gas and batons, the rioters remained fairly organized and succeeded in blocking access to the National Assembly. One rioter was killed, hundreds were wounded, and a two houses were burned, to which my political science teacher, who participated in the demonstrations, said, "This the the price of democracy." In fact, the rioters were so successful that Wade withdrew the entire amendment and, it seems, secured his end of term. 2012 will be as interesting here as in the US, I think.

June 27: Coming off the heals of a successful– and mostly peaceful– protest and after 24 hours of power outages, Senegalese once again went out into the streets to protest. This time, the protests were sporadic throughout the city, including my relatively sleepy neighborhood of Mermoz. My friend Tessa and I were sitting outside when we noticed throngs of people tiding in and out from the nearby thoroughfare, the VDN.  Upon inspection, we saw that people were barricading the VDN with burning tires and large cement chunks. The people were running to and from in tandem with the flying canisters of smoke and tear gas, which only sparked my interest. Tessa's house was right on the VDN so we stood outside with her family and we watched the rioters and police play their game of cat and mouse. I don't think anyone felt at risk, even with the canisters screaming a few feet in front of us: families let little children come out of the courtyards to see what was going on. At the same time, Tessa's house did receive a few barrages of gas and smoke. The VDN is relatively spread out so I can't imagine what tear gas would be like in narrow streets and crowded squares. Not to mention occasions of serious aggression and violence, which this was not. The protest continued for most the night until the power returned, if only for a few hours.

All very exciting stuff. I realize that my position– to be excited by such examples of participative democracy (I know this isn't what it looks like in textbooks)– is still one of privilege. When I leave in three and a half weeks, the plight of the Senegalese will still be theirs to carry and defy whereas I will return to American comfort and consistency. But, as I am here, I am here and I can be thankful to see and participate.

And don't worry, I am safe.

27 June 2011

Toubab Diallaaw

Last weekend, we took a trip to a seaside artists' village south of Dakar called Toubab Diallaaw. The weekend was a wonderful respite from chaos of Dakar and a moment for me to eat meat-free (which, even if I wasn't essentially vegetarian, was a welcome alternative to the fat-heavy diet we get in our homes). Most of the weekend consisted of swimming in the clean(er) water, reading by the beach, and eating... get ready for it, WHOLE GRAIN bread. We stayed at a wonderful artists' retreat hotel run by a Haitian architect and his French wife who designed and built the space using local materials with the intent to exist off the grid. I will try to snatch some photos from a friend to give an idea of the place; my camera, however, broke en route.

It is always pleasant to see how strangers converge and create community for each other. Our group here in Dakar has become a community for co-experience but will already have to see three new friends go back to the states this weekend. Moreover, in their place, three more will join us on July 4 for the last part of this adventure. We are at the half-way point of this summer session and I am only now realizing how quickly this will all end.

News on the protests to follow.

23 June 2011

Runs the World

You know what, Beyoncé is right. After living in Dakar for three short weeks, I can attest that women run this place. Or perhaps to say that they keep this place running is more exact. My experience has been that the men here do very little without the support of their wives, daughters, and maids. Take my host family as an example: my host mother teaches at a school, raised three children (only two of which were hers) takes care of our house, makes meals for her son Papi and me, tends to elderly in the hospital, and puts up with my constant confusion. Papi, on the other hand, is jobless (which I will attribute to the economic situation in Senegal right now more than his motivation), sleeps away most of the day, can not cook (most men here don't cook as it is contrary to traditional gender roles), and mostly watches tv. Firstly, I know that Papi's current situation grates on him. But regardless of his circumstance, other students' expierences confirm that the men here expect the women to procure food and water (which, depending on your location, can be difficult), to nurture and educate the children, and to care for their needs while they sit and discuss. The man's place is often to be a spokesman of the family in societal/community affairs and to provide financial support, when possible. Currently though, financial support eludes many Senegalese, what with decreased interest in Senegal's main cash crop, peanuts (a product of French colonialism here) and the president's constricting hand on society and economy. As a result, the 60% unemployment in some parts of the country leave men without occupation and women to take up the slack. So, as the men amble about, the women silently bear the weight. And at times, like today, not so silently.

So, while I might have phrased it differently than,

"I work my 9 to 5, better cut my check,"

I think I can say that I know what Beyoncé's getting at. And I am for it.

Where I lay my head

The Kitchen

The Dining Room

The Terrace outside of my bedroom

View from my bedroom door

The neighborhood Baobab
So, as fortune had it, my camera broke on the plane over here. The emergency soap that I backed in my carry-on exploded en route and gave it a permanent "lens error," a.k.a. the kiss of death. However, some gracious friends here have offered me some of their photos and I will also be posting from my iPhone. Here are some pictures/videos from where I live and what I wake up to each morning.

16 June 2011

Well it doesn't take long

To have a bathroom story while travelling. I'll continue with the afternoon and evening later. For now, here's a little story about intestinal adjustments in a new place.

Last weekend, the entire group took a day off to go to a nearby beach, Ngor. With the "increased sensitivity to sun" from our malaria medicine, we all left with some level of sunburn. Apart from the burns and the tide-transited trash that interrupted our swimming, the day was pretty enjoyable. Including the grilled chicken sandwiches that we purchased for a nearby stand. Now, in Senegal, the power cuts mean that any store without a generator runs the risk of selling/using rancid or spoiled food items. For this reason, we have been advised NOT to eat food of unknown sourcing. Well, we've been here for three weeks, so surely we have conquered all major bacterial hurdles and can venture out into risk this one time, or so I told myself. Carelessness can be biting, I have learned. But the moment passed, the food was consumed, and I headed home. Two days later I was in bed, feeling nauseated, exhausted, and homesick. However, that too passed. Yes, "passed" is the operative word.

On Monday after our beach venture, we headed to Le marché HLM, a vast fabric market, to secure some garish textile evidence of our geographic location. (Transition to present tense to bring you IN to the moment). The moment I step out of the taxi with two friends, I realize the unfortunate fact that not all of the weekend's ill had passed. But at this very moment, my body wanted it to, with gusto. Using all of my energy to remember my Aikido training and localize my onepoint somewhere other than my colon, I realize that I have about five minutes until this market visit will get a lot more memorable. With no public toilets available and a rapidly-exhausting time table, I begin walking more quickly, in search of anyone who will recognize my visible panic and come to my aid. Unfortunately, such was not the culture this day at HLM and I ended up walking up to a stranger sitting alone in the middle of the market. I rush through the greetings as fast as I can to get to the matter at hand: a toilet. The closest possible. And I will pay.

After a recognition of my lack of resource, he led me to his family's house in the middle of the market, wherein I greeted his entire family– now hearing the seconds tick off in my head– and  rush to his bathroom. I didn't have time to acknowledge how surreal this moment was, especially when I entered his bathroom to find it a squatty with a manual flush (that is, a bucket of water). No time to think, I realize, after using the restroom, that there is, once again, no toilet paper (see El Salvador 2008 and the $10 bill). In fact, there is nothing at all, on my person or in the bathroom stall, that will suffice for toilet tissue. Except, that is, MY HAND. This, my friends and family, was my only recourse, and, as in previous cases, I went for it. When in Rome, right? So, I cleaned up, flushed my mess away with my pride, and went to wash my hands, only to find the place soap-free. I cast hygiene aside, used as much water as possible, paid the man and got out of there. I spent the rest of the day very very conscious NOT to use my left hand until I returned home, where I scrubbed it raw and went on with my day, I will admit, rather seamlessly.

09 June 2011

A New Typical: the morning

I wake up around 6:45 each morning in harmony with the call to prayer bellowing from the mosque across the street from my house. My room is on the second floor and opens up to a terrace, giving me a full view of the mosque from my bed. I walk downstairs, lantern in hand if the power is out, to shower and brush my teeth. I pass my host mom without speaking- we're not supposed to greet them until we are presentable. Since all clothes are washed by hand, it is custom to wash your own underwear in the shower, a practice which I enjoy as it leaves me with no shortage of undergarments. With body fresh and teeth shiny, I can then greet my host mom with the set (translated here) greetings: "How are you? How did you pass the night? How has the morning been?" The responses are set and negative answers do not receive further questions- you are participating in a formality. Time for discussion occurs later, though I've yet to be privy to it. Breakfast is tea and half of a baguette. White bread, white rice, and white potatoes constitute most of what my host family eats. We, the students, all supplement our home diets with yogurt, nuts, grains, and fibrous fruits on the way to school. After breakfast, I pack up my stuff, give my host mom an "a tout a l'heure"(French) or "ba becceg" (Wolof) and head out into the new familiar.

 A crowded road divides my house from the salmon-stuccoed mosque in front. The road carries taxis, horse-drawn carts loaded with grain, back-packed students, mothers with children atop, dogs, cats, trash, and dust. It is quite a scene regardless of the hour and is made all the more poignant as I am the only white-skinned person in view. At least until I round the corner of the mosque and meet up with the other toubabs (white foreigners) in our group. We gather by a coffee cart, eagerly recounting the bizarrities of our night passed in the wild alien of our host homes. Everything is story-worthy for us; everything carries weight.

Who slept the whole night? Who had to wipe with water (instead of toilet paper)? An alternative to the fish and rice that fills our stomachs most evenings? Who was watching the Indian soap opera with their family? Language barriers, faulty plumbing systems, power cuts in the middle of a shower. We discuss it all as we walk to school, passing the strangers-turned-friends selling phone cards. Passing the Belle Viande meat truck selling whole quarters of beef from the back of the trailer. Passing the stopped Car-Rapide. Passing the fruit vendor who teaches us Wolof. Walking along the Route de Ouakam, we say salaamaalekum to everyone, eager to use the little Wolof/Arabic we know. Then, we cross the road, dodging the taxis, buses, and horses, and enter our school grounds, a quiet grassy walled haven from our new typical. 

This is the morning.