Sunday, June 22, 2008

Africa's Theme Song

I will put up a full Senegal Soundtrack eventually, but this Song ¨Kothbiro¨ by Ayub Ogada, has been the one song that really will ever remind me of Mama Africa. Every time I drive across one of the desert plains, every time I watch the waves crash, every time I'm dancing with the sweet village kids, this song comes to mind:

(P.S. This YouTube video is not made from scenes from Senegal, but the song is beautiful anyway)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

T -minus 2 weeks

As my time here in Mama Africa is winding down, I find myself in the same sentiment as I always do when I have to leave a place I love: denial.

¨Real life¨ of busy schedules and work obligations and processed foods and $4 gallons of gas and Hollywood writer's strikes is about to hit, and I just want to soak up the culture that I've been steeped in for so long. Yeah, I'll admit, I've fallen in love with Senegal. I've fallen in love with Morocco too, and Africa in general. My mom, who has been to Africa, told me before I left that once you visit Africa, a piece of it stays with you always and you'll have to return sometime. This is so true.

Like most college students, I've had my share of Future Freakouts. However, the Future Freakout that comes on the cusp of reverse culture shock may be vicious. I mean, when I think about returning to America, there are just so many details that need to be taken care of. This summer, I want to, of course, spend quality time with friends and family, I want to learn to bake gluten-free bread, I want to frame and organize my photos, spend some sweet one-on-one time with my guitar, and go camping in my granny's cabin up north. I'm so excited to go to the dentist, to drive stick, to roadtrip, to get de-wormed (I'm serious. Just in case, you know?), to practice some serious yoga, to celebrate the Fourth of July. On the scary side, I have to find work for the summer, an apartment for second semester, and work out all the financial aid shenanigans that are waiting for me. Then, you know, graduate, etc.
In the midst of all of this, I have to write my 50-page thesis about the research I did on the Casamance conflict. It will be very interesting to dig up all my expereinces and emotions and try to put them into words worthy enough for the heroes down there, like I promised I would try to do.

Oh hey! Check out this blog:

This photography project, run through the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst, Massachusetts, is all about the Casamance. All photographs posted to this blog are images of Bignona, Senegal, and the Casamance Province. They were produced by students at the Agricultural High School of Bignona as part of their idea that: ¨The 'Culture and Peace' photography project aims to highlight the culture and identity of the Casamance region, of southern Senegal, so that the people of this region may enter into a period of peace based upon a mutual respect with the rest of the nation. [It is our belief that] Respect for another is based upon respect for the self, which implies recognition of one’s own cultural heritage.¨

Kerry Coppin, the director of the project, contacted me and told me that they had used some of my work and writings as part of their exhibition. Spread the word: the more that people recognize that this is a living conflict that has consequences today, the closer we will be to a solution. Even if this region is small and seemingly unimportant in the grand scope of global conflicts, there are human rights abuses occuring. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder and director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel once told me a piece of wisdom that I have guarded in my heart as a guiding inspiration for my life. He of course was talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but his words apply to even the smallest of situations:

¨No matter what your politics are, no matter what you belive in, no matter whose land you think this is,¨ he told me as we sat in his office in Jerusalem, the sight of one of the world's hottest and most complicated conflicts, ¨there are blatant human rights abuses occuring on both sides...and it's up to all of humanity to stop this.¨

I'm trying my hardest not to be nostalgic and sentimental in these past days. There's still a lot that needs to get done here. I'm off to go finish my last paper...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Refugee Camp Hunting

Yesterday I saw my first refugee camp.

One of the other toubabs on campus, Jessica, is doing her research project on the Mauritanian refugees in Senegal. I have always wanted to (and still plan on) working with refugees in some capacity in the future. I read a little bit about the situation of refugees in Senegal while working at the Refugee service in Madison, but I didnt really know the whole situation.

In 1989, due to ethnic clashes in the border region between Senegal and Mauritania, black African Mauritanians were forced into exile across the river in Senegal. In return, many Arab Senegalese were expelled from their territorry into neighboring Mauritania. Refugee camps were set up in a few villages along the border, where the refugees still live today. You can read a more complete story here:

Anyway, I knew that the refugees camps existed close to me in St Louis, but I wasn't sure where. Jessica and I talked about going and doing some interviews and figuring out the situation, and we finally went yesterday.

Last week, a UNHCR truck rolled on to campus and I had the opportunity to talk to the man who works for the High Commissioner for Refugees in Dakar. He told me about their bureau in Ross Bethio, a town nearby, and of the refugee camp in Dagana, about 2 hours away. Very interesting conversation. Jess and I decided it was time to go. .
We got up early and went to the Gare Routiere. We waited 3 hours for a Sept Place taxi to fill up to take us to neighbiring Dagana, but we were determined to fulfill this mission: we were going to find this cache-cache refugee camp.

The journey was full of adventure...on the way we saw dust tornadoes in the desert, as well as packs of wild camels, and a rainstorm (!). In Dagana, we were dropped off at the middle-of-nowhere gar routiere. This city reminds me of those ghost towns you see in old westerns, or something out of John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus. It was pretty empty and quiet. There was no public transportation except horses and buggies, so we took one to our friend Abdoullaye's house. Alhamdoulilah, Laye happened to be in Dagana that day (we had not planned this...just called on a whim), and he played our guide. We are so indebted to him, because this whole journey was pretty much improvisée.

Abdoulaye and two of his friends took us to the camp, which was about a 15 minute walk outside of town. In fact, it was pretty well-integrated with the community, and I didnt even know we had arrived until Laye said, ¨well, here we are¨.
Dagana Refugee Camp is a small community that has been in existence since the beginning of the conflict in 1989. I'd say there are about 200-300 Mauritanian refugees, but it's hard to keep track, because there are so integrated into the Dagana community. In the beginning, each family had a mud and thatch hut, next to the river and creepy abandoned butchery, with hooks still swaying in the wind. The UN and Refugees International have donated money and infrastructure to build a health center, high school, and elementary schools. When we visited, the first thing I noticed was just how well-installed the refugees here are. They have begun to construct homes and buildings out of cement bricks, and have a working civil system.

As we walked around the camp, we chatted with some refugees in Wolof. It is interesting to note just how integrated they are into the Senegalese culture. The real problem in this refugee situation is that many refugees do not have any form of identification. So, they are Mauritantian, having lived for 20 years in Senegal, unable to go back to their home country, and unable to become Senegalese citizens. What does this mean? They're here to stay.

Refugees are stateless. They are completely void of civil rights, because they are the responsibility of no country. According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, all human beings are entitled to citizenship, so this is a serious problem. The children born in Senegal are entitled to Senegalese citizenship, but talking with the refugees, they still consider themselves completely Mauritatian.

The UNHCR has now started a program of ¨go and see visits¨, where some refugees can go back and visit their old communities in Mauritania, to be reassured that the situation is stable and that their government will welcome them back. The distrust of governments is a common trait I have remarked here in Africa. Rightly so.

I felt guilty walking through the refugee camp then just leaving again, not having accomplished anything. Am I allowed to ¨go and see¨ if I didn't pass out vaccines, I didn't dole out food, I didn't even dig a toilet? This is the wrong mentality. I went to go hear stories and see how the refugees really live, instead of just reading articles about it. The first step to peace, I learned this year, is listening. Everybody's got their something, and they just need to be heard.
Here, I am telling their story.

Jessica and I said goodbye to Abdoullaye, and began the ever-unsure journey back to St Louis. (transportation in Senegal is always a gamble). Waiting for the Sept Place at the Gare in Dagana, a giant fist fight broke out. Jessica and I just stood back, bemused. What an overwhelming day.
So much information all at once.
I'm so glad we went. I am so glad that we got to hear stories and see the reality. Maybe this is nothing and maybe it was selfish, but I am glad that Jess and I conquered one little mountain: if we can go hunting for refugee camps on a whim, we can certainly seek and find even more growth and experiences.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dear God: Why have you forgotten Africa?

My love,

I just met my sweet friend Birame outside on a bench. I asked him if he had class to go to and he informed me that the professors were on strike, again, for the 4th day in a row. We chuckled a little bit...TIA, after all. But then Birame said, ¨Dear God, why have you forgotten Africa?¨

The world is okay.

Cath, he said, we are poor. We have no time to waste, yet we go on strike. The system here is so inefficient. Why, why is life so very hard in Africa? Why did God choose to make Africa so difficult and unequal?

And in the end I realize that I am more free than I have ever been.

God made everyone the same, I tried to explain, he loves us all the same and cares for us equally. It is humankind that has messed everything up, because of our sorry human nature.
Why does my voice have so little hope?

We were expected to dream big and live lives less ordinary but there were still expectations- will always be expectations.

Tell me what to do? You and your people have succeeded. Why can’t Africa succeed? Look, Cath, look at the poverty and sickness and starvation and AIDS and injustice and war...

My gentle, genuine friend Birame was talking not out of a jealousy or anger against the Developed World, but his voice had the small quake of someone who is just very, very tired.

He was a very, very old man and his life’s work was keeping himself alive. A little before he died he came to church and talked about how he couldnt keep up the work any more.
And someone stood up, to combat this easy forfeit with the battle cry that we are all to worship in every breath we take, every movement of a hand, every word and heartbeat, and that there are many, many types of worship, and that work is worship.

It’s true. These terrible epidemics exist here in Africa beyond New York Times articles and Jeffrey Sachs books and trendy Bono campaigns.

I tried to tell him that the problems that exist here exist throughout the world, even in America.

Oh Mama Africa, the fact of the matter is, the West is better off than us. Almost everyone has a car...or at least a sink. If we could forfeit sleep, we should, because we need to work hard to get out of poverty. Success is our only option. Failure’s not.

I wish you all the best in your last month there.

Oh Biramey, don’t compare this place to the America. Your solutions, the solutions of your generation, will be organic and genius and truly African.

It has made me ache for days in the way that only something beautifully and recklessly constructed can.

I just told him that you cannot change the world, but you can give it your all to influence your own little sphere. You cant make policies for President Abdoulaye Wade or President George Bush, but you can teach your children to be generous and loving. You can participate in local politics and you can fight for justice, even when it’s not the popular choice, even when you will be hated...

This was sort of a quiet, thoughtful letter but I feel like I am on the cusp of so many things that only God and my heartbeat are steady in it. I feel like I have to be careful what I talk about or I may shatter tiny, baby plans.

Fight for injustice, even when it’s not the popular choice. Even when you will be hated. Even when it will take you years to have enough money to send your children to school. Even when you will eat rice every day of your life. Even when you yourself will be trapped in these socioeconomic and educational black holes. Even when people are tortured in your own backyard, having their ears cut off by rebels. Even when you may never own a sink. Don’t stop the fight. Ne jamais abandonner. Do not forfeit.

And I suppose that is not a bad thing, to be wrapped up only in my human-ness and the Divine.

My heart renders apart. What can I do? Why am I here? What, after all, is the purpose of me in the face of all of this?

I love you so much.

It just looks like the whole world to me.

You have everything you need to face the next challenge. I am so proud of you.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Yangy ci jamm.

Here's a real update on me:

I am finishing up exams and papers now. This morning I handed in a really interesting dossier about the comparative politics between the Truth and Reconciliation Committees in South Africa and Morocco. Not that my writitng was interesting, but I have realized just how much I love doing research, especially about topics along these lines.
I have 3 oral exams in French and 4 more theses to write in the next 2 weeks.
All I want to do is spend time with my loves and travel this continent.

I will be returning to the US on July 3, not June 25 as originally planned. It will be interesting to come back right before the country's largest celebration of Americana. I'm pumped, the 4th of July is my favorite holiday. I hope I dont sleep through it.
At the end of the month, I may travel back down to Casamance to do more research/visit friends. Also, I've been in communication with directors at USAID and the UN to see if I can do a little mini internship. Alors, as Hanzy just told me, on verra.

Neanmoins, I'm starting to feel the Sadness. I want to leave but I want to stay. I'm just gonna enjoy this last month left.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Nothing More

If there is any secret to this life I live, this is it: the sound of what cannot be seen sings within everything that can. & there is nothing more to it than that.
-Brian Andreas