Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Day in the Life of April's Africa

Today is April 19th, just an ordinary day, but one that, historically, has held some significance in my life and probably yours. First and foremost, it was my Granddaddy Penington's birthday (admittedly, this one is more "my life"), he would have been 103 years old today. Dr. Bob was a fun-loving gentleman and I always pause to think about him at this time of year. This is also the day that the Branch Davidians had their catostrophic showdown in Waco, TX in 1993 and the day that the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995.  Within this same week in recent history, we also had the Columbine shootings in 1999 and, a little closer to home for me, the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. I'm always grateful when we get through this week without incident. And because non-news is rarely reported, I thought I'd write a bit about my rather mundane day here in Senegal, this April 19th.  Besides, what has become quotidien for me, is likely still new and different for you.

I awoke this morning in my Bug Hut on the porch just outside my room. It's been so hot lately, that by the evening hours, my room heats up to oven-like temperatures and my fan, instead of improving the situation, just makes it feel like a convection oven. So I've taken to sleeping outdoors. Even before I opened my eyes, I heard the familiar call of the Beautiful Sunbird who visits the bushes next to my patio every morning, and therefore I woke up smiling, knowing that the first thing I would see would be breathtaking. I was surprised to discover, however, when I did open my eyes, that this regal bird was joined by two other spectular birds who make their home in Senegal, both equally stunning and much larger. There they all were, just two feet from me, and there I lay--without my camera. I knew that as soon as I moved and unzipped my tent they would fly off, so I just lay there quietly for 10 minutes or so and enjoyed their beauty as they cooed and preened themselves in the morning light. Soon, nature called and I was forced to get up and sure enough, they flew off, one right after the other. Here are pictures I've captured of these same birds over the past month from a much greater distance. Tonight, you can be bet I'll be sleeping with my camera at the ready.
The Beautiful Sunbird

Senegal Coucal

 Abyssinian Roller

After dismantling my tent, I made coffee and instant grits (you can take the girl outta the South, but you can't take the South outta the girl ;-)) and sat on my porch enjoying a relatively cool morning, while reading a chapter of my current book, John Steinbeck's The Winter of My Discontent.  This is the 26th book I've read since I've been in Senegal (for a full listing, see the My Spare Time page of this blog.)  It's amazing what lack of developed-world stimulation can do for the mind.

After breakfast, Ibou and I met with an agency that's writing a paper on our Paper Briquette Project, in hopes of providing us with some funding. They came by to discuss the project and collect some of the pictures I've taken. The agency supports sustainable development projects in Diourbel and after interviewing many groups and their projects, they've decided to put our project forward and present it in their proposal for grant money. I couldn't be more pleased. This is how our project came to life. Back in December, I attended an Appropriate Technology Seminar at the Peace Corps Training Center. Peace Corps Volunteers from thoughout West Africa came together to present technologies that they'd discovered and used successfully in their communities. The Paper Briquette Press was presented by my friend Stephanie, who lives just 25km south of me. It's basically a small three-piece metal contraction that presses wet paper pulp into a brick-like form. The brick is then dried and used in place of wood, gas, or charcoal for cooking. Recyclable paper is used to make the pulp, thus providing a means of reducing trash while decreasing the cost of fuel and minimizing the unhealthy smoke normally created during the cooking process. A "win-win-win" situation, you might say. The project never really took off at Steph's site, because she lives in a small village where there's a scarcity of paper. We both agreed that Diourbel was a perfect location to try it as there are many government offices and schools with bins full of waste paper to use and recycle. So, Steph visited us in early January and brought the press for a demonstration. Ibou loved the idea, we got buy-in from our association, and we quickly found a metal worker to replicate the press. Since then, Ibou, our friend Lamine, and I have done lots of testing and have now incorporated it into our Eco-Ecole project, using it to teach 4th graders about their environment. It's been so much fun and I'm glad the project is getting some attention.

A Step-By-Step Guide for Using the Paper Briquette Press

Step 1 - Make paper pulp.

Step 2 - Place pulp in press.
Step 3 - Place top plate on press.

Step 4 - Apply pressure to press.

Step 5 - Voila!  A paper briquette.
 From that meeting, we walked to a neighborhood elementary school, where we were scheduled to meet with the Directors of the five schools participating in our Eco-Ecole program. Unfortunately, four of the five Directors failed to show up--ironic because one of the meeting agenda items was to discuss absenteeism amongst our students. Go figure! We proceded with the meeting anyway, as there was one Director, two teachers, and a parent representative who had come. We summarized our program and detailed what went on in the five classes we held over Spring Break. The Director served us cafe Touba and beignets (think elongated donut-hole), so I've now had my sugar fix for the entire week. At the end of the meeting, a teacher poked her head in to speak with the Director, then they asked me if I would mind stepping into one of the classrooms to "demonstrate the color of my skin." Apparently, the teacher had taught a lesson yesterday about the differences in people's skin color throughout the world and was thrilled to have a Toubab in her presence to show the kids. When I entered the class there were 40 adorable little kids all sitting at their desks. When the teacher asked them if they remembered what they learned yesterday, they all responded in unison, "Oui, Madame." She introduced me and asked the class what color my skin was and they all responded, "Blanche, Madame." I tried to protest and explain to them that "aux Etats-Unis", most people would differ with that response, referring to me more as olive or brown, but that seemed a bit over their heads--they were only 6 or 7 years old, so I let it go. She then asked them "And what color is your skin?", to which they responded "Noir, Madame." Then, as proof that the concept of political correctness has not yet reached these shores, she asked "and who has Yellow skin?" and they shouted "les Chinois", and "who has Red skin?" and they shouted "les Indians." She looked so pleased. And, that, my friends, is what is being taught about the world today "en Afrique."

"Oui, Madame!"

One teacher on the cutting edge of social advancement, or not.

On our way out of the school, I stopped to take a picture of some girls playing "Elastique." They tie pieces of elastic fabric together into a large loop (one group was actually playing with one made entirely of torn-up old leopard print underwear), two girls hold the loop open, and one or two girls hop in the middle and kicks her leg up and over the band, interlacing herself in and out of the band, kind of like "Cat's Cradle", but with legs instead of fingers. It looked fun. As soon as the camera came out, however, I got rushed by half the school who all wanted to be in the picture. After that, Ibou and I stopped to gaze upon and pass judgment at the big pile of trash and plastic that was burning in the middle of the school yard. Tsk tsk! Hopefully, our Eco-Ecole program will put an end to unhealthy practices like that. We also plan to plant a plethera of much-needed shade trees. While the kids were out in the bright midday sun playing during recess, all of the teachers were lined up under the awning of one of the classrooms where there was a single strip of shade. Trees will make a world of difference in this school yard and in all of the others that we're working with, as well. Hopefully, we can get that message across. Just last week while I was in Dakar, I picked up 1,000 tree seedling sacks so we can get our tree nursery project started with the kids.

Fun with Elastique!

Everyone wants to be in the picture.

Kids are breathing the fumes of burning plastic at school.

At lunch, I joined the Gueye family across the street, as I always do. It was a typical day at the lunch bowl, although instead of Thieboudienne, we had Yassa (a yummy sauteed onion sauce served over white rice with a couple of pieces of fish and potatoes thrown in the middle.) I love Yassa and Yassa Poulet (the version with chicken) is even better. Today we had 12 people around the womens' bowl, although we were a good mix of women and children (both male and female). I have to admit that twelve is a bit crowded for the bowl and overcrowding has a negative effect on the entire culinary experience. Let me describe the scene for you. We're all siting around the bowl, with sweaty legs touching and overlapping so we can all fit. Only me and the small boys have spoons, all the women and young girls eat with their hands. We should all be focused on the portion of food directly in front of us, but with three toddlers at the bowl, that's hard to manage, so there were hands, arms and spoons every which way today. Cheikh, a 2 year-old, was sitting on his mom's lap to my right and his great Aunt Marame, was sitting to my left. At one point Cheikh had run out of onion sauce on his portion of rice so he reached over with both hands (a double no-no) and took some of mine. His Aunt saw this and slapped his hands (they teach bowl manners early here), and to my surprise, he slapped her back. She was astonished and slapped his hand again.  He was none too pleased, and returned the blow. This continued (right over my portion of the bowl, mind you) until everyone broke out in laughter. Then, as if that weren't exciting enough, a visiting 3 year old started choking on a piece of potato. His mom made him cough if up into her hand, dumped it on the ground, wiped her hand on her skirt, and then kept on eating. Then, the midday heat must have gotten to Fallou (a 9 year old boy), so he got up, puked in the courtyard, covered it with a handful of sand and then came back to the bowl to finish eating.  After that, Cheikh sneezed, spraying his mouthful of half-chewed rice into the bowl.   I seem to always sit next to Cheikh these days, which means that I leave every meal with a lap full of greasy rice and other items he's taken from the bowl and dropped on me. He's also developed a bad habit of resting his greasy hand on my thigh, so all of my clothes now have a grease splotch just above the knee on that side. I've given some thought lately about "firing" my lunch family. I pay them about $30/month to eat lunch with them, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it takes a chunk out of my monthly stipend (and I seem to be the only person paying it, but that's beside the point.) Also, I've just about reached my rice threshold and am not sure how much longer it will be before I can no longer put one more bite of it in my mouth. But, it's days like today, when a new dish appears out of the blue and everyone around the table laughs all at once at the slapstick antics around the bowl, that make me want to stick it out, even if I come home and make myself something else to eat an hour later.

As I was headed out the door to lunch, Ibou headed into Dakar to file some paperwork for our association. Lamine, who comes twice a day to water the garden, hang out, and help with classes, also left to go eat. On his way out the door he said, "Ok, I go now. You will be alone now," and quitely, under my breath, I said, "finally!" Alone time is hard to come by in Senegal. Although Ibou and I are technically the only two people that live in my compound this time of year, there are almost always other people here. Business associates arrive unannounced throughout the day to discuss projects, shoot the breeze, or use the internet. Neighbors come regularly to borrow things, offer to run errands, clean the compound, or share news. Lamine is here every morning and evening to water the garden and then Tafa come 6 nights a week to water some more and guard the property overnight. Within our compound, I have two rooms that measure 3m x 3m each, but even these are not entirely private. One is my bedroom and has a small bathroom attached and the other I use as an office. Without much warning, someone may appear at the entrance to either of these rooms and whip back the curtain door to greet me. Most people try to show a little restrain, however, and instead of whipping back the curtain, will just stand on the other side of it chanting "Assalum malekum." Literally translated this means, "peace be upon you", but in these circumstances it means, "I've arrived at your door for no particular reason so you must come out and acknowledge me so we can exchange meaningless greetings while I interupt whatever it is that you were doing before I arrived."  This happens countless times each day.  Needless to say, greetings are the well-respected backbone of this society and you don't mess with them, even if you're a Toubab trying to get some work done.

So, the little alone time I got this afternoon was a pleasant change. I finished a pair of socks I've been knitting (you can see a picture of them on the My Spare Time page) and was able to sit down and type up these thoughts. The power has been out most of the day, so noone has came to use the internet and I had about 3 hours of uninterrupted alone time while everyone else I know took an afternoon nap. It was lovely.  Then, the power came back on, Mom and Dad skyped, Lamine returned with a couple of friends to water the garden, and people started lining up at my door for evening greetings. I was back in the real world again.  I'm sure tomorrow will bring much of the same.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Senegalese Independence Day

Senegal is a young country, just a babe  in the world of political freedom.  Like a newborn giraffe that is still just learning to walk on its long and gangling legs, it often stumbles in its attempts be a leader of democracy, yet it is still considered one of the most stable governments in West Africa.  Fifty-one years ago today, Senegal was granted independence from France,a nation that had colonized it since the mid-17th century.  Before that, the Portuguese, Dutch, and English had their hands in the mix.  The entire continent, in fact, spent centuries under the rule of foreign lands, and it was not until the independence movement in the 1950s and 60s that most of these African nations were freed to govern themselves.  Senegal and The French Sudan were granted independence simultaneously on April 4th, 1960, and were named the Federation of Mali.  Just four months later, however, the two prior colonies decided to form independent nations and on August 19th, the Federation was dissolved and Senegal became its own country.  Léopold Sédar Senghor, a well-known and respected intellectual and poet, was elected the first president of independent Senegal.  Since then, a constitution has been written, and amended several times, and there have been two other elected presidents, Abdou Diouf, and Abdoulaye Wade, the latter who is still serving today.   


Senegal has become a respected leader in African unity and development and a promoter of African arts.  It is seen throughout the world as a peaceful country and all of its elections thus far have been uncontested.  That is not to say that there is not political strife here, because surely there is.  Since the early-1980s, there has been an independence movement in the Cassamance (the southwestern region of the country), which has escalated in violence in recent years.  The Peace Corps does not allow us to visit or travel through this area and deaths brought about by rebel forces are often reported on the evening news.  The areas to the north and east have recently been affected by Al-Qaeda activities in the bordering countries of Mauritania and Mali, and our Peace Corps volunteers have just been moved from locations closest to these borders.  Next year’s presidential elections are predicted to bring some upheaval, as President Wade has lost favor in recent years.  Two weekends ago, there were nation-wide protests on the anniversary of his initial election and on the eve of these events several people were arrested for allegedly attempting a coup d’etat.  People blame him for electricity and flooding problems that stymie the country and many contest the constitutional validity of him running for a third term.  Taking all of this into account, Senegal is still a functioning democracy and conflicts are few are and far between.

So, how does a country that’s been independent for just over a half a century, celebrate its “anniversaire?”  Well, first of all they close school for two weeks, which means that some people take this opportunity to travel to visit family and friends.  My host-Dad, Ibou, has a friend visiting this weekend from Dakar.   Apparently, Moustafa left Diourbel 25 years ago and has never been back to visit, much to the dismay of Ibou, who visits him often in Dakar.  He tells me its the heat that has kept him away for so long.  The thing that finally lured him here was not the Diourbel Independence Day Parade, however, but instead the external hard-drive worth of old music files that my father left Ibou when he was here last month.  Ibou and Moustafa have been holed up in his living quarters for the past three days listening to Jazz and Big Band music, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, burning discs for Moustafa to take back to Dakar.  When I joined them for dinner last night, I discovered that they’d only made it through the D’s (the music is filed alphabetically), so I suspect, Moustafa might be making a music pilgrimage to Diourbel again soon.

There is definitely a feeling of patriotism and excitement in the air today.  The mosques are blaring more frequent announcements, my neighbor made Yassa (a yummy onion sauce dish) for lunch instead of our usual Thieboudienne, people are gathered around their TVs to watch a big wrestling match, and because my neighborhood looks for any excuse to drum and chant all night, there’s been a lot of that.  My 12-year old friend Adji came over yesterday to give me a copy of a poem by David Diop (Senegalese poet, 1927 – 1960) that she’d copied out longhand and decorated with doodles for me.  It's called Afrique, Mon Afrique.  Here it is, translated for you:

Africa my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs
Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins
Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields
The blood of your sweat
The sweat of your work
The work of your slavery
Africa, tell me Africa
Is this your back that is unbent
This back that never breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying no to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
Springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.

Adji also told me that there would be a parade today, so this morning I asked Ibou about it and he said it was just about to start down by the post office.  I grabbed my bag and headed out the door, asking if he and his friend would like to join me.  He smiled and said smugly, “Parades are for young people, we prefer the Jazz.”  I had to smile.  I made it downtown just as things were getting started.  Thousands of people were lining the street and a grandstand had been erected for the occasion.  Color guards and drill teams from the Gendarmerie, the National Police, and the Senegalese Army were lined up in formation, and when the parade began, they marched down the street just out of sight.  Then, to my surprise, they turned around and came back again, and then, because something had to fill the half hour time slot devoted to the parade, they about-faced and did it one more time.  So, that’s one way to fill out a parade when you only have a few entrants--Batesville Day Parade organizers, take note!!  While I was taking pictures, the chief of police, who is also a neighbor of mine, spotted me in the crowd and escorted me to a VIP seat.  I guess there are some advantages to being the only Toubab in the crowd.  Aside from the uniformed troops and a small  military marching band, the only other entrant in the parade was group of decorated old veterans wearing military medals on their boubous—no floats, not high school marching , no little kids dressed up in costumes. There were no balloons, no vendors selling flags and pinwheels, and aside from one woman who’d made sugar bread especially for the occasion, no street vendors selling food.  But a parade is a parade and even without all of the consumer hoo-ha I was glad to share this patriotic moment with my fellow host-countrymen and women.

A crowd gathers in front of the post office

The Grandstand

Military marching band

The National Police

The Gendarmerie
Special VIP seating
Boys trying to see above the crowd
A mighty fine formation

I’ll end this journal entry with another poem, this one written by Senegal’s first president Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906 – 2001) about a tragic event that took place in another country (our beloved country) on this same historic day, just 8 years after Senegal gained its independence.  Apparently, he, too, was a fan of “the Jazz”

Elegy for Martin Luther King (IV of V) (for jazz orchestra)
It was the fourth of April, nineteen hundred and sixty-eight,
A spring evening in a grey neighborhood, a district smelling
Of garbage mud where children played in the streets in
And spring blossomed in the dark courtyards where blue
Streams played, a song of nightingales in the ghetto night of
Martin Luther King chose them, the motel, the district,
The garbage and the street sweepers, with the eyes of his heart
     in those
Spring days, those days of passion wherever the mud of flesh
Would have been glorified in the light of Christ.
It was the evening when light is clearest and air sweetest,
Dusk at the heart's hour, and its flowering of secrets
Mouth to mouth, of organ and of hymns and incense.
On the balcony now haloed in crimson where the air
Is more limpid, Martin Luther stands speaking pastor to
"My Brother, do not forget to praise Christ in his
And let his name be praised!"
And now opposite him, in a house of prostitution,
And perdition, yes, in the Lorraine Motel - Ah, Lorraine, ah
Joan, the white and blue woman, let our mouths purify you
Like rising incense!--In that evil house of tomcats and
A man stands up, a Remington rifle in his hands.
James Earl Ray sees the Reverend Martin Luther King,
Through his telescopic sight, sees the death of Christ: "My
Do not forget to magnify Christ in his resurrection this
Sent by Judas, he watches him, for we have made the poor
     into wolves
Of the poor. He looks through his telescopic sight, sees only
     the tender
Neck so black and beautiful. He hates that golden voice
The angels' flutes, the voice of bronze trombone that
     thunders on terrible
Sodom and on Adama. Martin looks ahead at the house in
     front, he sees
The skyscrapers of light and glass, He sees curly, blond heads, dark,
Kinky heads full of dreams like mysterious orchids, and the
     blue lips
And the roses sing in a chorus like a harmonious organ.
The white man looks hard and precise as steel. James Earl
And hits the mark, shoots Martin, who withers like a
     fragrant flower
And falls. "My brother, praise His Name clearly, may our
Exult in the Resurrection!"