Friday, November 19, 2010

sleepless desert nights...

senegalese weddings should be on everyone's bucket list. well no, technically i didn't attend one. the pre-wedding bride sendoff should be on everyone's bucket list. within my young 23 years of life, this has been one of the most beautiful, most poetic, most touching ceremonies i've ever witnessed. part of me regrets not having a camera for this once in a lifetime occasion but i'm also glad i didn't. pictures cannot capture nor do justice to the 30 hours of energy and love, the closeness of each and every member of a village, the farewell and words exchanged. to experience it was the only way. in the end, watching my sister be taken away by the groom's uncle was heart wrenching.

i've always dreaded senegalese holidays or events. they're quite dreary to say the least - a lot of dressing up for no reason, a lot of sitting around, a lot of drinking tea, a whole lot of nothing. so when i heard my sister was getting married, i secretly dreaded the event. i knew there would be loud music all night that would keep me from sleeping and i knew there would be a lot of sitting around the next day, shaking hands with every single person, eating food that's been touched by numerous hands, washing my hands in a washbowl that has been beyond thoroughly used but cannot be helped because there's no clean water left, drinking out of a communal cup that's been slobbered over by strangers - all of this increasing my chances of getting an amoeba again (my last amoeba extravaganza directly followed a wedding i attended so i associate large gatherings such as this with really poor sanitation and hygiene).

but the dreary part was derived from attending baptisms and weddings and religious holidays. never had i ever attended a bride sendoff. it turned out to be quite the contrary to dreary.

i didn't find out that it really wasn't a wedding until the very last 6 hours. i blame this on wolof's inadequacy when it comes to vocabulary. for weeks my family has been announcing this event as a sey, a wedding. but the word sey, i finally realized, can represent all things related to the wedding, like the pre-wedding bride sendoff. such an event is still within the realm of sey, and thus my confusion. furthermore, i blame my fellow family members for not correcting my grammar. for days, i've been asking, "so the groom has not come yet?" their response has always been, "no, the groom has not come yet." what they should've said was, "no, the groom will not come, ever." that would've made everything clear.

the first night, the women of the village got together and cooked. 2 dinners. there was more food served than during the breaking fast of ramadan. i haven't felt this full in a long time. we ate and then we danced. experience had thus far proven that people don't really dance but just sit in chairs, in a circle, staring at each other. this time though, it was different. the young, the old, and all those in between, everybody danced. granted it took the teenage boys a lot longer to gather their nerves and get started but in the end, no one (or at least very few) remained in their chairs. it was such a beautiful mix of tradition and modernity that i couldn't help but smile. a pole was stuck in the sand and on top, a single light bulb hung to illuminate the proceedings. we danced under the stars and moonlight to the thumping of gourds and hand claps, songs perfectly arranged by the DJ and his sound system. women in beautiful wraps stomp away at the sand, kicking up a hazy cloud of dust that engulfs the surrounding. shadows dance across the walls, echoing across the hills. i am actually in africa - this is so surreal.

after only a few hours of sleep, the second day begins. day 2 began with my sisters invading my room because there were too many guests everywhere and they needed some privacy to get ready and prepare for the festivities. the hair braiding took a good 3 hours, then the make up took another hour, and then putting on the outfit and adjusting it and wearing the tons of jewelry took another hour. 5 hours... damn. it's really a bit sad though. my sister is naturally very beautiful but thanks to senegalese customs and traditions, dressing up for a wedding means wearing copious amounts of makeup until you, quite frankly, start resembling a clown. i don't understand where this idea of beauty originates - though im thinking the french had some influence, all with their haute couture and whatnot. but i guess she managed to pull it off in the end. there was more eating, and more dancing, and my sister changed for her second outfit.

as the sun began to set, my sister retreated to her room, followed by a couple of family members, and began the process of packing. a group of women, unmarried, ranging from teenage to early womanhood, sat in a circle outside of the room, banging pots and clapping hands to an intricate beat, singing songs that i could not understand. the older married women were sitting a little farther away watching the younger generations sing their farewells. at this point, men weren't around yet, but being a foreigner, i was allowed to observe, sitting with the grandmothers a little farther away. the men of the village finally showed up 2 hours later. the groom's uncle, along with other family members of the other party, then arrived on a car. dinner was served. my sister, up until this point, had remained in the room, and no one but close family members has seen her.

once everyone in the village had been fed, an eerie silence engulfed the gathering. the uncle of the groom stepped forward and announced that he must take the bride-to-be with him to the village of the groom. at this point, a group of local young bachelors, ran to block his path to the bedroom, demanding a payment for passage. the uncle discussed the payment with the other family members and ended up paying the bachelors off. then my sister's uncle stood up and demanded a dowry, a lump sum of 30,000 cfa or the equivalent of $60. this may not sound like much at all but here, that's a lot of money in bulk. a typical senegalese salary is way below 20,000 cfa a month, and that's if he doesnt spend any money or owe anyone anything. the groom's uncle had a long discussion with the other family members and my sister's uncle, growing impatient, walked away. my other sisters, as well as the groom's uncle, had to run after my sister's uncle, and after some more discussion, the groom's uncle paid up. finally my sister walked out, entirely veiled under a white blanket and there was a little girl following her very closely, also entirely veiled under the white blanket. they both sat down in the middle of the procession. according to a grandmother i was sitting next to, the little girl's job was to convince my sister to get married saying things like 'you are beautiful' and 'you are a good muslim' and 'the husband will be nice to you'. no one could hear any of this except my sister. all the while, the villagers began a group discussion slash blessing and words of advice. in the end, a prayer was said and my sister got up and walked toward the car. the women of the village began singing again; my sisters and brothers were all crying. we watched the car drive away under the moonlight. it was midnight already.

it's a very heart wrenching departure because in some ways, she will never see the village ever again. once you are married, it's like you belong to your husband's family - you celebrate holidays with your husband's family, you dont get to go on vacations when you feel like it. your job is in his home and leaving rarely is a possibility. mobility for women in this country is difficult and unless there's a wedding or baptism in yang yang, she probably wont see her family for prolonged periods of time. it's lonely. and it sucks if she's the second or third or even fourth wife. but luckily, the younger kids that are going to school in the other village will be able to visit her so maybe she wont be so lonely after all.

following the two days of pre-wedding festivities was tabaski. tabaski is a holy holiday where every family (that is capable) sacrifices a sheep to commemorate abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to god. according to this book i read, there was a survey back in 2003 that said 5 million sheep were killed in senegal, alone, on tabaski. think of the population increase since then and then think of all the muslim countries in the world. how many sheep are slaughtered within the span of a few hours on the morning of tabaski?

our family slaughtered 2 sheep and i helped skin them and clean out the innards. i definitely lost my appetite the rest of the day. watching your food decapitated, skinned, chopped up, i should really become a vegetarian. then for many following days, sheep meat was all we ate. i watched my family tear through the skull of one.

otherwise, tabaski was uneventful as all other senegalese (religious) holidays are. we wore traditional outfits and walked around the village greeting everyone and that was about it. i guess the only other interesting thing was my outfit that i had made - i asked the tailor for red stitch work and he gave me hot pink.

go figure senegal...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

hypothermia in senegal?

totally possible.
it's been dropping to 60 degrees every night
which requires me to wear sweat pants and a hoodie and sleep wrapped in a decently cold-proof comforter
oh, still under a beautiful star studded sky of course...
maybe my body has acclimated too well to the desert heat
or i dropped too much weight from ramadan and the amoebas, though im working on it
it is actually cold in senegal. northface anyone?

ps - 25 days until my new york city and shanghai recuperation.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

this roller coaster is fun but it's no six flags or cedar point

still no camera. i think visual aids will resume january 2011 (when i come back from the land of plenty after my little vacation/recharge and have bought a new sand/dust proof camera). life in senegal is like one long roller coaster ride. some days are up days and others are down days. other times, you can have ups and downs all within one day, or even both by 8:30 in the morning. anyway, things ive done in the last 3 weeks and thoughts that have crossed my head...

1. i drank from a bottle that used to contain car break fluid. my breath smelled of sulfur. something i shouldve been worried about?
2. harvesting peanuts is awesome. i legitimately feel like a farmer. it gets monotonous after a while but i brought my speakers and ipod into the field and it was just fun working right beside my family listening to great american music (i listen to enough senegalese music to deserve these breaks). but it got me wondering... being here has made me think of things i never would've thought of back in the states. like picking peanuts for example. there's so much man labor required to pick peanuts and then weed out the bad ones. how do we do it back in the states in such large proportions? it seems almost impossible. i know machines do a lot of the work but how do they separate the bad peanuts? how do the machines differentiate? and then i thought of where the stuff we no longer use anymore - where they go. giant billboard posters for example. answer: they end up here as someones tent or someones roof or covering for trucks loaded with wood. "a diamond is forever", "the fast and the furious 3", "burger king" - a reminder of america and things that weve taken for granted.
3. riding a horse without a saddle or anything is harder than it looks. but fun! next time, i'll use a pillow.
4. i used to think - if i am only allowed to eat what i can successfully grow by myself here, i wouldve starved to death a long time ago. which is absolutely a true statement. but finally my garden is pseudo blossoming. i wish i could take pictures but allah has not granted me a working fixed camera yet. but, i have finally tasted the fruits of my labor! well not fruit, vegetable. okra, to be more specific. and moringa from my moringa bed. my sister made it into a sauce to eat with millet. my moringa was delicious. the millet, still not. fresh vegetables is such a luxury - to be able to pick it and cook and eat it, all within 2 hours. delicious. so i have a decent amount of okra growing. the eggplants and tomato plants are massive but haven't fruited yet. the mint are carrying on as usual. and now in addition, i have a massive plot of bissap (roselle) that will eventually grow to be used in food, and also to make a deliciously sweet beverage. awesome!
5 for a time, i thought the amoebas were back. or something else entirely, like giardia. my symptoms relapsed. it was really depressing - the disappointment at my body. the staph also came back from a while. but now everything is gone (i hope) and all is well. still trying to fatten up. im doing my best but it just isnt working.
6. we went to the local bar at 10am to return a couple of beer bottles and lo and behold, people are already wasted with empty gin bottles lying about. i wonder what alcohol means to people here and what they see as its purpose... curious.
7. here a free range chicken is shared amongst 10 people. in america, a factory raised chicken (and therefore 4x the size, 4x the meat of a senegalese free-range chicken) is shared amongst maybe 3 people. the gluttony that is america is appauling but i miss it so very much. sometimes my body craves protein so bad that when i have access to eggs, i consume 7 or 8 of them in a single sitting. rice is just a space filler - im starving all the time. i wont even mention cassava which has zero nutritional value whatsoever. my family is starving me. instead of buying vegetables and more nutritious items, they waste their money on new clothes. my family is relaively well off - if you only just look around the community and compare it to others. but it is definitely poor by Amereican standards. so stop wasting money. stop malnourishing yourselves. stop starving me.
8. sometimes i think america is destroying their culture. middle of nowhere rural desert africa is no place for american rapper inspired baggy jeans, tasteless profane tshirts, and rocked flat-billed caps.
9. the ny minute vs waiting - i have always been a fast paced kind of person. this slow paced lifestyle and work ethic is killing me. sitting around gives me more stress than working with stressful people. this snail crawl is so hard to live with...
10. i walked around (and sorta got lost) in the desert, by myself. it's quite a feeling, being so alone. i was visiting a village about 5k away that had no water, no electricity, no health facilities - basically a village i want to work with. it required forging a stagnant stream which was really gross (i feel like definitely caught something new) and following a barely visible tire track in the sand that criss crossed and diverged and converged every so often. it was cool though. i'll never be able to do this again in my life so gonna enjoy the isolation.
11. my project will fail. my boss (well sorta, not really) finally came up to hold a meeting with all the important members of my project and for the last 3 weeks, that was what i was doing - getting people to come to this meeting. i wanted 2 representatives from the 9 villages, preferably matrones and ASCs but if they dont exist, i set up potential relais, women with motivation that want to help their village. i also invited my chief of village, my ICP, my counterpart, the president of the health committee, treasurer of the health committee, a USAID - plan NGO worker in the district, and my sous-prefet of my arrondissement. i continuously had trouble getting charette rides or car rides. and when i met these people, they always told me "enshallah" meaning allah willing, meaning maybe - the worst response you can get when you really want definite answers. up until the morning of, i really thought no one was going to show up. and they didnt for the first hour and a half. of course it's senegal and when i say a meeting starts at 9am, it means show up at 11:20am. i literally had people showing up 3 hours late, but i guess they eventually did come which is what really matters. it's a slow progress and most likely my project will fail because it's so timeline based but i will try my best. i also realized i failed at language acquisition. my wolof still sucks. it's unfortunate.

went to halloween. tamba is a magical place. our region is really deprived. we live without anything in life.