Two Villages, Two Towns, and a Toubab
This check-in is prettttttty lengthy, just a heads up.
The last time I checked in I had just participated in Tabaski with my host family. Just a few days after that, my group left for our first rural-stay in a village called Ndiane, about thirty minutes outside of the city of Thies. Literally as soon as we got to the village, the sky started to brew. Black clouds rolled in, thunder cracked ferociously and it poured. So much. So quickly. I had literally not even met my host family yet; a small group of us found haven in the chief’s home. When the storm let up, a young boy from my family rushed to meet me and help me carry my bags to the compound in which I was staying. I was welcomed into the Thiaw family. The storm rebounded shortly after I was brought to my room, so for the rest of the night I stayed inside with a few smalls girls and my host brother. He spoke French and some English (as opposed to solely Wolof, which is what I was workin’ with with the rest of the family), so we had a spirited talk about America and farming and education. The next day was quite the ride. I met a lot of the family, went on a tour of the whole village (led by a hoard of 20 children under the age of 7) and helped to prepare for the feast that was to ensue later that day. I had a vague understanding that that day was a holiday, but I didn’t really understand what that meant, what holiday it was, etc. But I tried to roll with it. I helped peel and cut over 60 onions, 20 cloves of garlic, and hand filter the dirt out of rice. A lot of rice. A mountain of Yassa Poulet was being cooked for the flood of people that were starting to trickle in, and I was excited! I love Yassa! I was having a good time! But the visitors were different from my family. Some were curious as to why I was there if I didn’t speak Wolof, some were mildly offended by that fact. I was trying! There was a growing part inside of me that was so fed up with myself for not learning Wolof faster. At dinner, some of the visitors chuckled about me having difficulties eating pasta with my hands (excuse me but there’s no way to eat pasta with your hands in a graceful and beautiful matter!!!). Then right as dinner was finishing up, the power went out. I used it as my moment; I began to cry. The Wolof! The laughter! The word Toubab! The darkness gave me the moment I needed to regroup. The stars were beautiful. I was okay. My problem was an internal struggle. Tomorrow I would try a different approach. The next day was so much better! It was just my host family again. We watched a DVD of a wedding of a member of the family. That night the girls that were the same age as me braided my hair. My host mom sat alongside me. It was nice. The next morning I left the village. Before I left, my mom pulled me into her room and used her son as a translator to talk to me. She put her hand on my heart and said “You are always smiling and you’re always trying. You’ll always be my child.” I had no words. I was so grateful. She knew I had struggled on the holiday. And she was telling me that was okay. That I was still welcome and appreciated. They gifted me peanuts and a watermelon and we left Ndiane.
Then began my stay in Thies for the rest of the week. The next morning we set out for a day trip to Touba. The holy city of Senegal. It was founded by Amadou Bamba, the man who also founded the Mouride brotherhood of Islam (the most prominent brotherhood in Senegal). We visited the grand mosque in the city. We had to wear long skirts and head scarves and take off our shoes. It was SO HOT. But so beautiful, too. The mosque is perpetually under construction, perpetually improving. We then got a tour of the archival library. We left the city and had a picnic on the side of the road, and returned to our hotel. That night a few of us befriended a US military medic. We went to dinner with him and talked Peace Corps, service, Senegal and a bunch of other stuff. The next day we visited a small school called Daray Sembene. It was attached to her house, and primarily used for helping people bridge the literacy gap between Wolof and French. She was a really incredible woman. On top of that school, she’s also in the process of starting a educational program on TV here that helps teach people who speak Wolof how to speak French too. AND she directed the documentary we watched after returning from the school. She’s inspired by Ousmane Sembene, the most famous cinematographer in Senegal. I’ve studied him quite a bit. Watching her documentary was interesting because I could see the essence of Sembene in her work. After lunch we went to a tapestry exhibit and toured the workshops where they create those beautiful works of art. There was an old man taking the tour with us who was introduced as a very influential Senegalese musician. He was quiet and smiley and blind in one eye. We went to his house after the tapestry exhibition to see his art. His paintings were phenomenal. And he had a story behind every one of them. Not just any kind of story. The kind of story that I have studied before… The kind of study that I did my senior project on last semester… And that’s when it clicked. That’s when I asked if he was a griot. OF COURSE HE WAS. I’ve studied griot culture for so long and I finally met one and I hadn’t even known!!! I was so pumped, borderline starstruck. I asked if I could come back next month to do an interview with him for my research and he agreed. I can’t wait. CAN’T WAIT. I don’t even remember the rest of that day because that was the best thing ever. The next day we went basket shopping before getting a VIP tour of Senegal’s Peace Corps facilities. I have to say… I have mixed feelings about the Peace Corps… but seeing it from the inside, meeting 4 volunteers who are currently being trained about sustainable agriculture in a rural village… it was inspiring.
The next morning we returned to Dakar. We had an 8-day gap between our two excursions. Things were pretty normal for that week. We had a cooking class, worked on Wolof and French. It wasn’t too intense of a week. AND the absolute middle of the program was that week, too. I think that gave me time to think about how long I’ve been away and everything that I have done. About how excited I am to be here but also how excited I am to come home. That feeling hasn’t really left me since this summer when I left California!
We left Dakar on a Saturday bound for the region of St. Louis. The journey took all day, making stops for lunch, for someone getting rid of their lunch, and at a gigantic Baobab tree (which used to be a griot cemetery how cool right?!) This time around, we would be staying in a village outside of the town of Saint Louis called Mouit. I would be part of the Diouck family. I was a little nervous. But the first night was very quiet. My family was small—my mom, two adult daughters and their husbands, and three children. I woke up the second day (which was a Sunday, the universal day of rest) and decided to sit under the big tree in the yard and write. I caught up on so much work, even got ahead. It was magical. Getting time to focus without locking myself away at school or at a library or something is rare. After that I helped cook, ate lunch and fell asleep under that same tree. I was awoken by my host mom with news that I would be going to a wedding ceremony! They dressed me up in a traditional boubou and we went to the reception. Came back in the evening, had some tea, wrote some more, showered with a curiously large cockroach, and went to sleep. The next day was to be jam-packed with group activities. We met in the morning and took a boat across the channel to the beach. We spent a couple hours picking up trash to clear the way for nesting baby turtles! We had a break in the middle of the day to return home and eat lunch with our families before again crossing the channel to go to the beach and swim. I witnessed the most beautiful sunset of my life that evening. On a dock looking out across the water. So so peaceful. I miss that place already. The next day was my last day there. I woke up early and accompanied my host sister to the market for lunch supplies. When we got back I spent a couple hours talking to a family friend (who spoke French and English fluently) about the local soccer team, the local economy, sustainable agriculture and waste management. It was a bizarre moment—I felt myself networking. Like genuinely making a connection with someone who wants to clean up their home, their country, and wants my help. It was awesome. My family gifted me the boubou I had worn to the wedding and I promised to come see them again someday. And we left Mouit for Saint Louis.
Saint Louis is a quaint little island with an interesting dynamic. Half the island is very tourist-oriented, and half the island is very not. We stayed on the side of the island that was very not. We stayed in a hotel on the water with a connected restaurant on a wharf. The first night we had dinner in that restaurant and a debriefing about our time in the village. The next morning, bright and early, we had a lecture with a really well known author in Senegal. Louis Canara, the Louis of Louis. It was so cool. He was so smart but humble and easy to understand. (Keep in mind, most of my time here I function in French. Sometimes, such as in villages, I have to try and function in Wolof, too.) After lunch we visited a university campus in Saint Louis. It made me miss Humboldt! Not because it looked like Humboldt at all, just because of the inevitable and intangible energy that college campuses have. We spent most of the next day working on a project we had been assigned about the governor’s palace on the island. We met the keeper of the archive of the palace and got a tour of the building! After we finished the research, we wandered over the touristy side of the island… What a difference there was! I can’t even describe it. We found a shop with beautiful clothing that was 6 times as much as we know the real price to be. The next day we finished up the last minute details of our project and went to lunch. Now is the time to mention that we ate at the same restaurant for every meal after the wharf restaurant on the first night. La crepe Saint Louisienne. A magical crepe place. The owner was a young man who was born in Benin and raised in Paris. King of crepes. We know everything about him because we ate there 7 times in 3 days. Oops. Not oops! Hell yeah. That evening we presented our projects and had a closing group dinner at the wharf with ice cream. Today we headed home. I’m back in Dakar now for my last week of classes. Next week is the beginning of my independent study period in which I will be listening to griots tell me fairytales and traveling and writing and having a jolly old time.
(I have no pictures from those few days because I forgot to charge my camera and the camera on my phone has been really selective about functioning properly.)
As I post this, 6 weeks until I travel home. Crazy. Time passes different here. I hope this post didn’t bore anyone to death, I know it was very long and a lot of “I did this, and then I did this.” But I’ve got a few requests for something more like this to understand where I am and what I am doing. And also this past month has just been jam-packed with cool stuff I wanted to share!
PS – a Toubab is a white person. The term originally denoted a French person, but it’s evolved to mean a white person. If you were wondering what that word in the title meant.
Talk soon. Soon being relative. I’m a bad blogger. Love you guys.