Monday, December 24, 2007

Joyeux fetes!

Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope
the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees!
Oh, hear the angels' voices!
Oh night divine!
Oh night when Christ was born.

Merry Christmas!
These words have meant so much to me this past year. Im pretty much removed from the comercialization of American Christmas, and living with a Muslim family and having mostly Muslim friends has made me really reflect on the true meaning of Christmas. Christianity is so important to me, and Dec 25 is the day that we celebrate how it all began. In the markets in Dakar, you can buy blow-up Santa Clauses and fake Christmas trees. I havent killed myself trying to buy Christmas presents for everyone. I have spent a lot of time reflecting and reading about what led up to Christ's birth and life. Even the Muslims here agree that Jesus was someone special and that his life should be considered with reverence. Muslims and Christians share all holidays, as was evidenced by Tabaski celebrations on the 21.

Oh Tabaski. The concept of Tabaski is taken from Sura 37 in the Koran. It is the story of when God called Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Ishmael, to show his faithfulness to God. God called Abraham to give up what was most important to him, to prove that God was central in his life. At the last moment, God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead, and was satisfied with his faithfulness. If you look in Genesis 22 of the Bible (or Torah), you will find almost the same story, except the son is Isaac, the father of the Hebrew nation. The morning of Tabaski, I spent quite a while reading both stories and comparing notes. SO interesting, and so convicting of my own lack of faith.

To commemorate Abrahams sacrifice, every muslim family is to slaughter a sheep. If you dont have enough money for a sheep (and they are expensive! Mactars family bought 2 at $200 each!), then you buy a goat, if not, then a chicken, and so on... Men will go to great lengths to provide a big sheep for their family and it is said that before agreeing to marry a man, a Senegalese woman wants to make sure that he is able to provide a good sheep for Tabaski. That is the comercialization of Tabaski. It is definetly the biggest holiday of the year. After special morning prayers at the mosque, the men come home and slaughter the sheep. Our family bought 3 sheep. Because Kel's husband is in Italy right now and Papa is on the hadj to Mecca, we had to hire some guys to do the initial slitting of the throat, because only married men are allowed to do it. After that, Kel's brother Amidou came and did most of the skinning and cutting up, with the little boys trying to help. I helped Kel cook all morning and grill the sheep, then we all ate a big lunch with relatives. After that, we sat around and digested a bit, then changed into our fancy Tabaski clothes to ¨go visiting¨. Man, the women here especially buy the most blingin' outfits youve ever seen, and they can cost hundreds of dollars (millions of CFA). I had found a gorgeous piece of embroidered fabric in the discard bin at the fabric store for about $2, and I improvised it into a dress.

My friend Omar's family had invited me to spend Tabaski at their house in Geduwaye, so I went over there and spent the evening with them. Omar is one of my best friends in St Louis, and we had such a good time walking from house to house in the neighborhood, of course eating at each one, and chatting and dancing and laughing. Parties in Senegal are so...wholesome. I met Omars whole family, including his father's second wife's family, and I stayed until 2 am. Photos soon.

Depending on which Islamic brotherhood you are in, you celebrate Tabaski on different days, so the party has technically lasted for about 3 days now, with kids lighting firecrackers in the street and people walking around in fabulous outfits, visiting friends and loved ones. Good times.

Today is Christmas eve. I wanted to try to go to a Christmas mass at a monastery outside of town, but the cab fare would be so expensive. I think Ill go to midnight mass with Clare's family because her little brother is in a Christmas pageant and I want to see what the Senegalese version of that is like. After I wake up, Ill read the Christmas story like my dad does every year, as we sit on the comfy couch. After that, I might try to make myself a big Christmas breakfast like my family does in WI. Then Ill give my family their presents (thanks to Shelly!). Then I will take a walk to the beach in Mermoz and sing some carols, just to say that I have put my feet in the ocean on Christmas day...and because it is the closest point to my family and loved ones back home in the US. Then I'll open my gift: an organic chocolate bar my mom sent me. I think Jill's family might be having a little Christmas dinner, so I might go over there. In any case, I want to share the day with family. I'll try to call you, family, but I cant make any promises. All in all, it should be wonderful. We'll see how it all turns out.

This has been the most relaxing christmas break i can ever remember. Im not working or planning or trying to get a million things done, heck, yesterday, December freaking 23rd, I went surfing! Crazy.. However, yesterday I bought my ticket for the boat down to Casamance on the 28th. Im going with Claire and Jill and Ryan and Katharina, and Im staying at my friend Fatou Sy's house in Ziguinchor. I will be doing interviews down there, and Im going to try to spend a night in a village. That is the extent of my work.

Ok, Im going to miss you all during this season, because this holiday reminds me how important you are and how much we are loved. You have my thoughts and prayers. Happy holidays, all of them.

And most of all, a gigantic HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! to my sweet love, Autumn Steiner. You know that I was partying my pants off for you here. You are sososososososoososo loved.
Omar and I in our Sassy Tabaski outfits.
The men killing the sheep as Mousafa looks on. That will be his job someday.
Omars beautiful sister and I.
The women of the family, all together.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dakar, sweet Dakar

Its good to be home again in Dakar.
Coming back into the city, I remembered why I love all the hustle and bustle and life and sensory details that are here. Being awy for a bit has made me able to see it again with new eyes. The market is not so intimidating anymore, same with the public transport system. Things are a bit different, though. The temperature is noticeably cooler- I think I have to go invest in some jeans. There are mouton (sheep) everywhere, because of tabaski. Tabaski is a muslim holiday on the 21st where every family slaughters at least 1 sheep or goat. Its a big deal here. On tv, there are call-in contests where you can win money, fabric, a sheep for tabaski, or round-trip plane tickets to Mecca. Its not your momma's Price Is Right.

I have been corresponding with my Aunt Diana, who is a New Yorker through and through. Shes lived there for over 3 decades, and she has come to identify the city as a part of herself. This feels like such a strange concept to me, but as one who has been shuffled around (and has shuffled herself around) a lot, that concept is becoming more acceptable to me. To have one city that you know inside and out and that you will always identify as HOME, no matter where you are located. I feel like my sister knows this feeling with Milwaukee and my parents know this feeling with Manila. I wonder if I will ever have a location like this. Id like to feel at home and familiar with many many areas and cities, but where will I go at the end of the day to put my feet up. Where will the street vendors know my name? Every day I am so absolutely convinced that home is where your heart and family are. In that case, Milwaukee, New York, Dakar, St Louis, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Oconto Falls, Boston, Madison, etc. are my homes. Wherever you are, really. But where do I want to settle?

Yesterday I decided to try to conquer the beast that is Marse Sandaga, the biggest market in town. And, I forced myself to do it alone. I felt like it was something I had to do....sort of an initiation into being a real Dakarian. Dakarian? Dakarianite? Dakite? Person of Dakarian origins?
Anyway, by far the scariest part is the transportation. The bus and car-rapide systems seem completely random and disorganized and all the construction for next years International Islamic Conference doesnt help. In actuality, the system makes sense once you get used to it...and dont mind walking a bit. I did some shopping and was pretty successful at Waxal-ing, or barganing down the prices. I went to 3 different post offices looking for a package that somebody sent me, but 2 bribes and one lunch with post office workers later, I was sitting in Cafe Medina, savoring the gifts from my friend Shelly. Also, I had the best cafe au lait Ive ever had in my life there. The secret: sweetened condensed milk instead of cream. Digression! On my way home, however, the man sitting in the seat next to me was...pleasuring himself just a little too much, so I kicked him in the shin and stomped on his foot as I jumped off the car rapide. Nasty. Of course, I didnt know where I was because I just left asap, so I did a fair amount of walking with my baggage. Oh well. Always an adventure. Its good to be back in Dakar.

Hanging with my family and Moussa and friends has been great. He's same ol and we hang out and discuss and play solitaire while they smoke endless cigarettes and I practice my sorry Wolof.

Today I have to get jump started on my reserch by contacting orgs in Casamance. This makes me a little nervous, because I feel like Im just some punk kid that is trying to do something important without really knowing how. I feel like Im a little girl standing in my dad's giant shoes, trying to shuffle around the linoleum, without a definitive goal. What do I want out of these interviews? A lovely and moving collection of personal histories that indicate something proactive and useful that I can identify and write about.

Ah yes, being in Dakar means the time is always running out in these cybercafes. Happy Tabaski to you all!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

My 21st Birthday!

I celebrated my 21st birthday in St. louis this year. I documented almost the whole day in photos... At the university, there is a tradition where the birthday person gets woken up at 12 midnight on their birthday and all their friends and neighbors throw buckets of water on them. My friends woke me up and cracked eggs on my head and threw 21 buckets of water on me. It was a little chilly.

My luxurious birthday breakfast of Chai tea (thanks mom!) and an orange. Oh baby!

All dressed up for my 21st. Also, because I had an exam that day and I always dress up for exams...

Nervous for my exam to start. It was my first one in my history of Africa class. Like a blue book exam all in French. Funny story: the teacher didnt have enough copies of the question sheet for all the students so he asked us to share, and the students practically started a riot. They were yelling and pounding and standing up to walk out. Claire and I were slighly afraid, but it died down eventually.

Claire cooked me eggs for my birthday luncheon, and took my photo to remember how happy these past 20 years have been.

Then we negotiated a riot in the street in order to get off campus to go downtown.

We walked around downtown and then all went to dinner at this gorgeous hotel called La Maison Rose on the river. I ate a tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad and flan on the rooftop terrace. My friends bought me wine and some tequilla-bissap mix.

My friend Magueye stopped by that night to make sure that I laughed enough on my birthday. I went over to my friend Lamine's restaurant on campus and he made me a special drink from the fruit of the baobab tree. Steve Canada bought me a beautiful silver necklace with a cross and Sandra got me a gris-gris bracelet from the Artisan's village. Katarina gave me some tea and Jill and Ryan gave me chocolate and wine and a cool Kenyan instrument and a conga- a huge piece of beautiful cloth. Oh, and one of my other friends gave me a joint as a gift. Its the thought that counts.
After all the downtown shenanigans, Jill, Ryan, Claire and I returned home and drank wine and ate chocolate until the wee hours of the morning. It was really sweet. I was so grateful to have spent such a beautiful day in such a beautiful country with such beautiful friends. I wish I could have spent more time with my senegalese friends, however. And I was certainly missing my friends from home.
This morning I woke up and just felt kind of...anticlimatic. I took my roomate to the bus stop and she took off early this morning. After that, I went into our computer room and just got so so sad. I dont know why- it is unexplainable and selfish, I know. I just feel like Ive disappointed many of my (high) expecations for myself. Looking back on year 20, I was just amazed at all I was able to do and all the traveling that was made possible and all the love I got to share. Man, am I blessed. 20 was a good year. I'd buy it's wine. In the computer room, in the rosy red light of the African sunrise, I just sat and wallowed in self pity for a little bit, then decided that year 21 is going to be full of growth and experiences and joy and peace and love and lots and lots of laughter. Im not going to expect too much, and Im not going to worry about having all my ducks in a row at all times. I have a grand purpose. Now I have a good feeling about 21.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I saw a shooting star last night.

I got up early this morning to print out my essay for sociology, so Im sitting alone in the computer room, waiting for my first class. This is quite a week. Lets recount/anticipate events...

Last saturday I went to town to visit Aminata's uncle and aunt. They were so nice, but we ended up just sitting and watching telelvision together for 4 hours. I felt like my brain was melting. Interesting fact: every cinema in St Louis and Dakar has been closed down for ¨moral¨reasons, but practically every family, no matter how poor, owns a TV and watches it a lot.

Yesterday I started my internship. It was kind of...odd. I got there and there was a conference going on for the community leaders of the microfinance program for women that RADI does. So, everyone was busy with that, so I sat around and learned more about what RADI does. Cool stuff, like conflict mediation, leadership conferences for village chiefs to learn justice, peaceful demonstrations, and they just opened up a women's health facility. Awesome! About 3:30 pm; they laid out a huge lunch for us, which took about an hour to eat, including 2 rounds of attayah. Other than that, I sat around more until Anta told me I could leave. Hmm...maybe Ill do some work eventually.

Tomorrow is wolof exam. Friday is History exam and beach and party time. Sunday is leaving for Dakar.

Oh yeah, if you want to hear one song that is my soundtrack here in Senegal, listen to ¨Kothbiro¨by Ayub Ogada. Or anything by Yousoun N'dour.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

¨We mostly eat bread for breakfast. Cereals are for babies¨

There was a riot yesterday. A little one. The administration is supposed to pay scholarships on the first of every month. The students line up early in the morning and get handed cash. They hadnt recieved the scholarships yesterday, so the students went on strike (i.e. no class). They had an assembly in the afternoon and somebody probably suggested that it would be a good idea to block the road out of the university. The mass of students filled the street and lit tires on fire and started throwing rocks at passing cars. They were pissed. I dont know how it all resolved, but the students eventually dispersed and scholarships were paid today. TIA.

Classes, dispite strikes, are moving along. I actually have a 2 page paper to write by next wednesday, A Wolof exam next thursday, and a history exam on the 14th ( does that always happen?). Oh, the classes that I am taking - or trying to take- are as follows: African regionalism, Sustainable Development, Comparative Political Systems, Problems of Social Development, The Law of International Negotiations, African Civilization Post-colonialism, History of Africa, Intensive French, and Wolof language. Thats too many, so I have to drop some, but which?

I start my internship next Tuesday. Its at an organization called Reseau Africain pour le Development Integre- RADI. Its a sort of ambiguous organization that works for the rights of man. They have different programs, including pro bono law consulting, community healthcare programs, and women's serivces. TASA's got nothing on RADI. I have no idea what Im going to be doing, but the coordinatrice, Anta Diallo, is so rad. When I went in for my interview, she kicked off her shoes and started talking to me about what I'll be doing for Tabaski, putting me at ease.

Speaking of Tabaski, heres my tentative plan, so I can sort out my thoughts:

Dec 16 - take bus to Dakar for holidays
Dec 21 - Tabaski with my host family.
Dec 25 - Christmas with Jills family in Dakar
Dec 26 or 27- Take bus to Ziguinchor for research and vacation.
Jan 3ish- Bus to Dakar.
Jan 4ish- Bus to St Louis

Question: To what extent is one expected to assimilate to a different culture? On the one hand, we are in a foreign place so its only polite to try to speak the native language and take on native customs. On the other hand, we shouldnt compromise our own values and traditions to please others. Where is the point that you say ¨This part of my culture is part of my identity that I dont want to compromise, so Im not going to give it up just to fit in.¨? Interesting....

Okay, gotta go. there are some things I want to Wikipedia because I wish I knew more about them, for example the conditionel tense in French, Emile Durkheim, and Microsoft Exel.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

There are things that drift away like Our Endless Numbered Days

Cool things Ive realized (again) this week:

Brew chai tea really strongly and add it to vanilla yogurt with banana slices = glorious improvisation. You have to get really creative with food here in Senegal.

Iron and Wine is incredible.

Im going to miss the people here. One of Jills roomates, Fatou Favorite, finished her exams on Thursday and we cried as we walked her to the cab. And its only been 1 month.

Soirees here are hilarious. Everyone gets dressed up and walks to the cafeteria around 1:30 am, where the lights are low and the disco ball is glowing. There are about 15 guys for every girl. There is a mix of traditional senegalese music and hip hop and everybody is dripping sweat and dancing like crazy. This is the only time when you are allowed to and expected to dress like a Say-say, or flirt. People leave around 6 am.

Humility is so important. I need to work on this.

Its harder to get to Morocco than I thought. And its only 2 countries away.

If a girl wants to spend a night with her boyfriend, she says that shes going to ¨visit her uncle¨. Sex happens here, but its almost never discussed.

Along these lines, theres very little privacy and few places to be alone here. Solitude is not a Senegalese value- if you desire to be alone, you are considered to be either sick or depressed. On monday; I spent an hour walking around campus for an hour just looking for a place to sit and write and read and pray and meditate for my weekly Monday Night Cath Time. I found a little boutique where I could buy a cup of coffee and sit at a plastic table, but then I was hassled by men the whole time until I pretended to not be able to speak French.

Even if you want to do schoolwork here, you cant really. Youre not allowed to check books out of the library and its only open for 8 hours a day. I have a paper due next wednesday; but theres only one copy of the book we have to read for 40 students. I have an exam on the 14th, but I have no idea what most of the notes say. At least my brain is moving now.

Christmas traditions are lovely. Family traditions are so important. Im so glad my family has ours.

Im so grateful for my parents and their organization. I CANNOT imagine my life without them.

Psalm 90 is so sweet. It describes my desires of my life:
90:12 - Teach me to number my days aright, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.
90:14 - Satisfy me in the morning with your unfailing love; that I may sing for joy and be glad all my days.
90:17 - May the beauty of the Lord rest upon me. Establish the work of my hands for me - yes, establish the work of my hands.