Thursday, March 10, 2011

Not Just Toubabs, But Three!

Traveling to Africa is not for the faint of heart.  In fact, when I found out I’d be living here, I wondered if anyone would come to visit me.  The tickets are pricey, there are a slew of shots required, and the accommodations are a little more rustic than those to which people I know are accustomed.  Lucky for me, I have adventurous parents, who are healthy, still quite young at heart, and who decided to throw caution to the wind and come see me, bringing with them two extra suitcases of things I’d left behind and some much appreciated consumables.

Abdullah's article sparked a friendship
A couple of months before planning their trip, my Mom read a “When I Was In Senegal” article that a young boy had written for a local newspaper in which he described visiting his parents’ native country and spending the summer with relatives in Dakar.  My parents made contact with the Abdullah’s parents who live just a few miles away from them in Springfield, VA and told them that their daughter was living in Senegal.  Rama and Idrissa had Mom and Dad over for Thieboudienne (a traditional rice, fish, and vegetable dish) and they all became fast friends.

Mom and Dad arrived in Dakar before dawn on the 21st of February, the last day of the WAIST, the West African Invitational Softball Tournament, where Peace Corps volunteers from West African countries join other Americans who live and work in Dakar for three days of sportsman-like frivolity.  We volunteers take this opportunity to dress up in team costumes, bond with others from our regions, and drink beer in the middle of the day.  My team, although handsomely attired in African print cotton lederhosen, did not go onto the finals which meant the last day of the tournament and the first day of Mom and Dad’s trip was freed up to do other things.  Because there were over 200 Peace Corps volunteers in Dakar that weekend, we were hosted by American families and I was staying, with 11 other women at the US Ambassador’s house.  Madame Bernicat was kind enough to welcome Mom and Dad (and all of their luggage) into her home for breakfast the morning they arrived before we headed out to explore the city and check into our hotel.  Unfortunately, they didn’t get a chance to meet each other, especially since I’d found out the day before that she and her family live about 5 miles from Mom and Dad back in the states and will be returning in July.  Who knew Springfield was such a Senegalese hotspot?

Team Lederhosen @ WAIST 2011
Dad arriving in Dakar
Breakfast Chez Madame Ambassador

After recuperating from their flight and relaxing after breakfast, we walked through N’Gor and caught a crowded bus to Mermoz (different neighborhoods within Dakar.)  The rickety old bus was hard-core Senegalese, falling apart and over-crowded, but they were troopers and hopped aboard anyway.  In the afternoon, we checked into our hotel in the urban Plateau district and were pleasantly surprised to have ample space and air conditioning.  During our three day stay in Dakar, we enjoyed lunch at a French bistro, real ice-cream, street vendor omelets and coffee, Portuguese food at a Cape Verdean restaurant, and lunch at Rama’s family home, where we met her parents, her father‘s first wife, one of her sisters, two of her brothers, and a couple of nieces.  They were incredibly hospitable and we enjoyed their company for hours.  We also visited Île de Gorée, an historic island just off the coast of Dakar that served as the launching point for African slaves from all over West Africa during the latter part of the 18th century.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and serves as a tourist destination.  The island is stunningly beautiful and filled with bougainvillea-lined streets and colonial architecture.  Because no cars are allowed on the island, there is a peaceful, meditative feel to it, and the colors are rich and pleasing to the eye, especially in contrast to the urban hustle and bustle of Dakar which is just a ferry ride away.
An afternoon with the Fall Family

Goree Island from the ferry

At the House of Slaves
Bougainvillea-lined streets
Colonial architecture along the beach
Thursday afternoon, we hired a Sept-Place to take us back to Diourbel.  What felt luxuriously spacious to me (just 3 passengers in a car that’s usually packed tight with 7) felt archaic to Mom and Dad.  To their credit, you could see through the floorboards to the street below and exhaust was blowing in the windows of this 30 year-old, non-air conditioned, Renault station wagon .  As we drove east away from Dakar, the temperature rose significantly (20 degrees F) in the 150 kilometers that we traveled.

We stayed in Diourbel for just over a week, pausing every couple days to consider a day trip here or there, but deciding each time it was just easier and more pleasant to stay at my compound and venture out for a couple of hours each day either before or after the heat of the day to explore different parts of my town.  Although the mornings and evenings are still cool, the midday temperatures are surpassing 100 degrees F again as we get closer to the “hot” season.  On their first full day in Diourbel, Mom and Dad woke up early to accompany me on my 3-mile walk to school.  Unfortunately, when we got there, we discovered that the kids were excused for the day to study for exams the following week.  That would have been nice to know before we headed out.  C’est la vie au Sénégal!  We visited with the school director and then headed into town to explore the market.  Along the way, we stopped to say hello to Mamadou, a woodworker friend of mine.  He presented Mom and Dad with wooden bowls he’d made for them and gave us a tour of the artisan village where he works.  From there we explored the market and bought ingredients for dinner.  Before leaving Dakar, we’d stocked up on some essentials at the large grocery store, so we cooked breakfast and dinner every night they were in town.  We ate lunch with the Gueye family across the way, who served us Thieboudienne with a mango-tamarind sauce, everyday.  Although they enjoyed this dish (as do I), they got a good feel for the monotony of the Senegalese dining experience.  Mom and Dad joined the women’s bowl where they were given short stools to sit upon and, although it was a little difficult for them to get up and down, they managed to eat every lunch on the floor with us.   That being said, Mom’s first trip down was a bit eventful, as she aimed for the back of the stool instead of the center, which sent her toppling over onto her back, lifting her dress up over her head, and providing a very white flash to my very dark-skinned neighbors.  The Gueye’s were very welcoming and glad to open their home to my parents.  Adji-Fatou, the 12-year old girl who’s become my friend, planned a large party for my parents to welcome them to Diourbel.  She and her mother made crevettes (Styrofoam-looking fried shrimp chips) and fataya (fried dough with onion sauce) and she invited about 10 of her friends to come over for a dance party.  They all dressed in their sparkly clothes, rolled out a mat, and danced to the same three songs over and over again on Adji’s brother’s tape player.  It was adorable.

Mamadou and my parents

At the Diourbel Market

Sporting their new duds

Youngsters on the dance floor

Awa Gueye with crevettes and fataya

The electricity went out a lot during my parents‘ visit, sometimes for the entire day.  This is pretty common here, but seemed more inconvenient when trying to entertain guests.  They’d brought headlamps and a couple battery operated lights with them, so we just made the best of it.  During the day, I would get some work done, grading tests, reviewing lesson plans, etc., while Mom and Dad read on my porch.  We invited Ibou to join us for dinner most nights and I served as translator for our dinner conversation.  Had everyone spoken the same language, I think they’d become good friends.  Dad brought Ibou his entire collection of mp3 music and they quickly bonded over this gigantic old music collection.  Mom brought him a Hawaiian print shirt she’d bought at a yard sale and he wore it for days.  We all spent a good deal of time photographing and identifying the many beautiful birds that seek shelter in our compound’s garden oasis.  The last day we were in Diourbel, Ibou organized an all day event, in three parts.  First, he had one of our neighbors come over to cook a big platter of---you guessed it--Thieboudienne and we ate that with a few friends.  Afterwards, we enjoyed Attaya, a strong sweet Senegalese tea served in shot glasses, and then were instructed to go rest.  Later in the afternoon/early evening, members of the eco-village and a group of neighbors came over to express their appreciation for Mom and Dad’s visit and my presence in their community.  We ate cakes that had been made in the solar oven, several neighbors gave speeches, and we even had a griot sing a song of praise while others entertained us with dancing.  The group presented Mom and Dad with gifts of traditional clothing and then the party dispersed again.  A few hours later, another neighbor came by with a dinner she’d prepared for us (meat cooked in the solar over, French fries, salad, and bread).  She and Ibou left it for us to eat it on our own (in the dark), hence Part 3 of the all day affair was held with much less fanfare.

Ibou, Richard, and Nancy

We spent a lot of time birdwatching 

Mom adapting to the local way

Lots of meals, lots of dishes

Mom journaling
A fond farewell

Singing and dancing to celebrate

Dad napping

Dining by headlamp

Gifts from the neighbors

A farewell lunch
Friday afternoon when I returned from school, we departed with a hired a car and driver for Tivaouane, my training village.  We arrived at my host-family’s house in the midst of preparations for a baptism.  My host-Uncle and his wife had had a baby girl the month before.  There were many friends and family there helping to prepare for the big event to be held the following day.  My family was so pleased to see me after 5 months of being away and I was happy that we’d decided to make the trip.  It was especially nice to see Cheikh, my tall young host-brother who had been my communication link to the family.  We brought him a soccer ball, as he’d asked for one so many times when I was there.  When we gave it to him, his eyes lit up and he told us that he planned to take it to school, as their physical education class no longer had a ball.  We were all touched by this sweet gesture.  The family served us a platter of Thieboudienne, even though we’d already eaten lunch, and we ooh’ed and aah’ed over the baby for awhile before walking around the neighborhood to visit with the host families of the other Peace Corps Volunteers who had trained there with me.  Each family was surprised and happy to see us.  It was a really nice visit overall.

Cheikh with his long-awaited ball
A reunion with my Tivaouane family
From Tivaouane, we headed into Thiès where we visited the Director of the Training Center and had dinner with my Language/Cultural Trainer, Sakhir.  It was quite the day for reunions.  We stayed at a nice inn attached to my favorite restaurant and headed out the next morning for Bandia.  There we stopped to talk with my beekeeper friend and took a tour of his beekeeping warehouse and his garden.  He’s agreed to come to Diourbel to conduct a “How to Get Started in Beekeeping” class with some of our eco-village members.  Bandia is also home to a large wildlife preserve where we spent the afternoon.  I was concerned it might be a bit overly touristy, but we were impressed with its authenticity and how well the reserve is managed and maintained.  In the two hours it took to drive through the grounds, we saw hundreds of animals, all scattered about living amongst each other.  There are no predators roaming within the 3500 hectacres of grounds so rhinos, giraffes, ostriches, zebras, monkeys, and warthogs can all live together without fearing for their lives.  It really was amazing to be amongst this African menagerie (unfortunately, my camera was acting up while we were there so I'm awaiting copies of the photos that Dad took.)  After our guided tour, we enjoyed lunch by the crocodile pond  and fed curious monkeys from our table.  After lunch we drove to Popenguine, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away.  We checked into a two room villa near the beach and had a relaxing afternoon and evening, buying trinkets from the vendors, visiting with PC Volunteers who were gathered for a fête, and watching the sunset over the beach.  I even talked Mom and Dad into a game of Yahtzee.

Abdou and his papaya tree

Abdou's bees enjoying a drink

On the beach at Popenguine

Sunday morning came much too quickly, as this was the last day of their visit.  After our petit-déjeuner, we drove to Saly, a resort town south of Popenguine.  This is the town where many European vacationers come to experience Senegal and because of that it’s a bit more developed than other beach towns.  I was surprised to see that just off the beaten path, however, there was still a great deal of authenticity to the community.  They were having an annual artisan fair, so we were able to see lots of handmade items all in one place.  Unfortunately, the Senegalese (yes, I’m about to make a broad statement here) do not understand how to approach a potential customer.  As we walked down the aisles of artisan booths, vendors grabbed us by the arm to pull us into their booth or threw their own arm out to block our way.  This form of aggressive marketing does not work with me, nor does the need to wheel and deal to get a fair price.  Normally, in a market setting, the Toubab price quoted is double or maybe three times what the vendor would charge another African and finagling is necessary to get them down to a reasonable price, however, at this artisan fair, prices were being jacked up 10-fold or more.  Mom ended up buying a pair of wood carved hand brooms for $20 US (still probably too high) after talking the vendor down from $240 US.  This negotiation took 20 minutes and became rather unpleasant at times, with us walking away and him chasing us down.  Experiences like these always do a disservice to the vendors and I wish I knew a way to effectively teach them that they‘d sell much more if they just left shoppers alone.  We ate lunch at an outdoor French restaurant where Mom ordered crêpes (she’d been taste-testing and comparing notes in every restaurant we dined) and a chocolate mousse, and was a very happy diner.  From Saly, we made our way back to Dakar, relaxed for a couple of hours by the pool at the Atlantic Club, and then met up with Seyni Fall, Rama’s sister, for dinner.  It’s really nice to have new friends in Dakar.  When we stopped by her house to pick her up, we caught the last few moments of a wresting match (Sumo-style wrestling is huge in Senegal) and witnessed the favored wrestler pin the underdog, thus winning the match.  The house erupted in cheers, as did the neighbor’s houses, the surrounding streets, and all of Dakar.  When we drove down the street to find our restaurant, we had to maneuver through the crowds that had filled the streets chanting and singing in celebration.  Our driver got nervous as a crowd of revelers jumped on the car in front of us.  I later learned that this sporadic celebration spread all the way to Diourbel and beyond.  It was an amazing sight to see and a nice way to send Mom and Dad off.  We dropped them at the airport after a late dinner and I headed back to Diourbel in the middle of the night with the driver, plopping into bed at 2am.

Breakfast at our beach villa

Relaxing poolside at Club Atlantique

Our new friend Seyni Fall

There are so many little stories that have been left out of this synopsis of my parents’ visit, but those of you who know them can get a play-by-play in person.  They left here comforted to know that I am surrounded by friends and people who care about me, that little by little I’m making a difference in peoples’ lives, and that I lead a simple yet, engaging life here in Senegal.  I am so glad they made the journey to see me and were able to witness a part of the world that is so different from the one we, as Americans, have come to know.  I told my friend Rebecca that I think this trip added 5 years to their lives and I hope that it’s true, for their sake and mine.

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