I didn’t pack anything green to wear today. But as it were, the amount of attention given to Saint Patrick’s Day in Senegal just happens to be…none. In fact, ask an employee in a resto/bar named “Le Celtic” if there are special festivities for le jour de Saint-Patrick, and you will probably be met with a) a quizzical brow or b) dismissive laughter. In any case, happy Saint Patrick’s Day if you happen to be of the appreciative population ;)
The weeks seem to be moving faster and faster. Tomorrow morning I’m leaving for Saint Louis until next Saturday. We’ll be traveling a lot and staying in a village called Mouit for 3 nights. After that, we have two weeks left with our host families, and then we’ll be starting the ISP (independent study project) period. I am toggling back and forth between what I’d like to study, so I’ll blog about it when the details come together. I am going to be living in an apartment somewhere in Dakar—probably Ouakam or Point E. I am going to miss Anna, Ngate, Baba, Mounasse, and Fatou SO much, but I am also ready for more independence. And since Dakar functions a little bit like Indiana suburbs circa 1950 (visit whenever! bring foods cooked with hydrogenated oils!), I will have plenty of opportunities to go visit.
Last Sunday, I spent the most amazing afternoon at l’Ile de la Madeleine, a once government-protected national park that has since been abandoned. Once created to protect the dwarf baobabs, the island is mostly composed of an enormous, dry field full of baobab trees and bouye. The other half is the most breathtaking display of clear water, electric green seaweed, and gigantic rock formations. Barely suitable for humans, its only inhabitants are the many birds that nest at the tops of the rocks and some very friendly, floppy sea creatures. The colors were vibrant, the temperature was perfect, and if heaven exists on Earth, we found it.
The ride there was nothing short of risky. Ten of us crammed into a pirogue with our very buff captain, Moustafa. The sea water climbed to nearly the rim of the boat even in the calmer waters, occasionally sloshing freezing sea water onto our arms and legs. When waves picked up near the island, we ascended and descended so dramatically with the crests of the waves that we squealed and laughed out loud. Oddly enough, my jitters weren’t for my own swimming abilities, but those of my digital camera… but in the end, there was no reason to worry.
About 15 minutes later, we were safely past the rough waters and entering paradise. We scrambled out of the pirogue and explored the island for hours. We climbed the cliffs, sat and watched the sea breathe into an enormous whirlpool, swam in the clear water with our little sea friends, and went exploring in the fields. I found that sitting under an enormous baobab tree, picking its fruit, and taking the time to appreciate the majesty of it was one of the more spiritual experiences of my life. (I keep having the _____-est experiences of my life here. I’m okay with it.) I am determined to get back there again at least once before coming back to the states.
This week, I’ve been teaching Mounasse how to play the guitar (tutti tutti) every evening, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with Anna and Ngate. I am looking forward to next week in Saint Louis, but I’m also a little bit sad that my time here is going by so quickly. Who knew I could get so comfortable in Dakar… neex na!
Well, friends, I’m back in (what I now consider) luxurious Dakar. I’m showing a little wear and tear, physically and emotionally, but I’m finding my lion’s heart and staying in good spirits. Kedougou was a fickle lover: intense, hot, violent, beautiful. All in all, it was a rough week for all of us.
Kedougou is unspeakably hot and dry, like stepping inside an oven. The region is yellow-green and mountainous, and at first glance it’s really striking and beautiful. If I can be stereotypical for a second, the trees branch out so wide that it’s like looking at a screenshot from the Lion King. The dryness and the thickness of the dust in the air was recognizable from the moment we entered Kedougou, which had none of the hustle of Dakar. All over, there were small villages with grass and mud huts and laundry drying on lines outside.
We went on two major hikes, the first up to the village where I stayed. After about a half hour, rocky ascent up a mountain, we arrived in Etchwar, a Catholic(ish), Polygamist, Animist village with a beautiful view of the brush and lots of adorable children under the age of four running around. Tired and sweaty but feeling accomplished, we all climbed the enormous boulders to the top of the mountain, and looked out on one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. We could see the Gambian border and the edge of Mali. I felt on top of the world. There, I met my host mother, Emilie-Ann Kieta, who greeted me with a shy smile. She had the two-year-old twins at her ankles, and the baby in her arms. Topless, her breasts hung down nearly to her belly button, and I couldn’t help but admire her as a sort of maternal beacon as she stood there in front of me.
The second hike was up to another Bedick village called Iwol, where we were attending a circumcision ceremony for one of the preteen boys. Iwol was on a higher mountain in more intense heat, so the hike was difficult, but definitely worth the view and the ceremony. We danced with the villagers, drank millet beer (yuck), and played with some really adorable children. It was overwhelming how rich and old their traditions were, and how strange they were to me.
The morning of our village drop-off, we visited an enormous waterfall, which was a short hike into a beautiful forest. The sounds were perfect: rushing water, birds chirping, and wind rustling through the leaves. The roots of the trees were enormous, stretching out of the ground like old sages. The waterfall was like something out of a fairytale. Risking schisto, we got in our bathing suits and spent time under the rushing water and jumping into the pool at the bottom (and consequently getting some nasty bruises from the rocks below). It was absolutely wonderful. By that point, I thought I’d fallen madly in love with Kedougou.
When it was time to move into the village, I packed 4 days worth of clothing into my backpack, along with my mosquito net, a bedsheet, some advil, soap, and toothbrush and toothpaste. Fini. My host brother and sister (school-aged, maybe around 9 or 10) met me at the bottom of the mountain. Zoe Martin was the other student living in the village, but she had different host parents. All of us, about 4 Bedick children and 2 toubabs, headed up the mountain, puffing and panting with our backpacks and water, stopping to rest on rocks every once in a while. When I reached the top, my host mother again greeted me with Gerard, the baby, on her back. I met my other 6 host brothers and sisters and my host father, Bernard Kieta. It was funny to be there in a culture that was so foreign, meeting people with names so familiar. Whoever the missionaries were that came, I believe that they only succeeded in inspiring new name choices because the Bedick people are still polytheistic and essentially pantheistic. A+ for effort, though. My siblings were: Nyano, Daundau, Niapame, Gerard, Tama, and Kali. Although I had “siblings,” all of the children in the village congregated around me, waved hello, and ran their fingers across my skin. I got to know most of them by name.
The first thing I did was to eat cold rice and peanuts with the kids. Afterward, they wanted to walk around the village with me to show me around. I let them take pictures with my camera, and they had a blast figuring out how it worked. We played “cards” until it got dark. I have a feeling that a past toubab gave them a deck of cards and didn’t teach them to play anything, because the game they were playing included the title card and the joker as important playing cards. But the rules were complicated and I never figured them out, go figure. When it got dark, everyone brought out their dull flashlights. We ate dinner around a large calabas (like a big, empty gourd), a mash of rice and a very salty, sort of bitter peanut sauce that I was not a fan of. At this point, the stars had come out, and I couldn’t stop looking up. They were absolutely incredible. There was barely a black space in the sky, and the constellations I knew as a child were brighter than I’d ever seen them, twinkling so brightly that I finally believed they were suns. The older men began making ataaya, and Zoe and I lay on a bed of sticks watching the stars twinkle, occasionally slurping some sugary ataaya.
All of this was lovely, but I began to feel a crawling sensation on my skin and an unprecedented amount of nervousness. I thought, what is making me so odd? Thinking it was just stress, I went to bed early. My bed was a row of sticks lying together with a braided straw mat on top of them, situated inside of a comfortable mud hut with a grass roof. The hut was comfortable, the bed was less so. But ever the optimist, I thought of how the human body can get used to most anything, and sure enough, I fell asleep easily.
The next day was the start of two days that I have since labeled “bodyapocalypse.” When I woke up, the crawling in my skin was still there. My stomach was uneasy, and I felt nauseous. But I was excited to watch the sun rise from the top of the mountain, so I decided to ignore the symptoms and climb up the rocks. Zoe, her host father and I sat on top of the rocks waiting for the sun, and what should have been a peaceful wait was something like a nightmare for me. I thought, come on, body, just hold out for the sunrise. Slowly but surely, the sun came out from under the brush, slowly came toward us and turned the sky orange. It was a lovely sight and I wish I could have experienced any peace while watching it. As I climbed down the rocks, I knew something was definitely wrong.
There are no toilets in Etchwar; going to the bathroom on the mountainside is no big deal because feces evaporate within an hour because of the heat. So there I went down the mountainside, and I got sick. From both ends. Sorry. This post will be a lot of TMI. But I’m not sure I could authentically talk about this experience without it. And I’ve become so comfortable talking about it with the other students that I don’t know that I’ll ever blush again when I hear the word diarrhea.
As the day pressed on, I tried to stay outside with the women and the children. I talked to my host mom while she cooked by the fire, but my skin crawled and my stomach lurched, and I ended up back down in my bed by 11 AM. I slept until 2 PM, and woke up completely drenched in my own sweat. I practically sprinted to the mountainside to make it in time, and continued to sprint to the mountainside about every half hour for the remainder of the day. When there was nothing left to “purge,” what was left was blood and water. I started to get scared. I called a professor, and they sent more water and Immodium up the mountain, telling me to let them know if I wanted to come back to camp. But coming back to camp meant coming down the mountain, and even walking 5 feet made me exhausted.
That night, my fever got up to 103 degrees. I didn’t sleep very well because I had to get up every hour to take care of business. When I woke up at around 7 AM the next morning, I was horrified to discover that my legs were covered in my own shit. Shaking and crying and SO hot from the fever, I wiped off my legs and the sheet with baby wipes. I fell asleep again on my bed, and I remained there for most of the day, though I ventured out for a couple hours at a time. The kids looked on me curiously, bringing me rice every once in a while, of which I could only eat three or four spoonfuls at a time. At night I ventured out to see the stars again, and I started keeping a list in my journal of everything I found beautiful there to keep my sanity intact.
That night, I woke up at around 2 AM and immediately knew that I didn’t have a fever anymore. i breathed such a sigh of relief and went out into the night and let myself just feel present. I was so proud of my body for fighting the fever, so proud of myself for staying in the village, probably one of the least comfortable places I’d ever been in my life. My cracked, bloody lips and my dirty skin (so dirty that when I sweat, a teardrop of dirt would trickle down my leg and leave a black trail behind it) were like my battle scars. My back hurt from the bed of sticks and the mosquitos bit, but it was a beautiful moment. I decided that I’d bathe myself, and that was even better. The cold water, the breeze on my body, the stars.
The next day I spent very present in the village, though very tired and still weak from lack of eating. I shelled peanuts with the women, played with the children, and went to the well to get water. My favorite little girl in the village, Monique, ended up getting sick that day, and they didn’t have any medicine for her. My heart ached for the villagers, who often described their loved ones as dying from “stomach aches.” The nearest hospital is in Dakar, 12 hours away for them. I gave them what I had, though I was nervous it might mean they would expect medicine from toubabs every time they visited.
Zoe was sick by that point too. When we headed down the mountain, we were so proud of ourselves for sticking out the village. I feel like I could make a million posts about my time there. The goats who were killed in front of me, seeing their feet sticking out of the buckets, seeing my brother eat his meal with goat blood on his hands. Seeing the kids rub limes in dirt and then eat them, or rub their suckers on chicken feathers and eat them. All of the women breastfeeding constantly, always topless, always working. The men sitting around drinking ataaya or hunting.
Here is my list of what I found beautiful as it was at the end:
-cooking mud pies with the kids (with sticks, gourds, and old dixie cups) -the stars at night -knowing the kids -seeing the circle of life everywhere (chickens, goats, lambs, humans followed by their young) -goats walking in my room, checking on me, and leaving -seeing the goats climb the mountain -lime tree in the backyard -Etchwar in the morning -big trees and roots -the breeze at night, the soft noises -the visiting french tourists -ataaya -monique’s giggle -carrying water back from the well, it dripping down my armpits -kids singing -feeling accomplished and proud of myself -shelling peanuts -my night shower
When I got back to camp, we were 18 very dirty, sick people. Very sick. And we were changed. We’d seen the harsh reality of what having the bare essentials in life really means. It means playing with empty sardine cans instead of toys, drinking muddy water, and eating baobab fruit instead of pharmaceuticals. But all in all, I wouldn’t trade this experience. I have done a fair amount of crying today trying to process it all, and I am still processing. What I know is that despite how hard things may have been there, there was love and there was community. And that, my friends, is what it’s all about. Let us never forget.
This morning, I walked out the door of my house, and for the first time didn’t feel like an 18-month-old. I held my purse strap across the front of my body, careful but confident, and headed down the streets of Ouakam to the bus stop.
Here’s a little picture of a typical morning walk/ride to SIT:
I am always met with stares. I smile at the women and stare blankly forward when I walk by the men. I’ve been here long enough that I recognize two or three people usually, and we stop to talk. No matter how busy or late you are, you always make time to greet your friends and acquaintances. I know that if I stop to meet a woman I don’t know, she will likely be cordial and pleasant. If I stop to make the acquaintance of a man I don’t know, it will probably end in a marriage proposal. So I avoid eye contact.
About ten minutes of walking and I’ve met all kinds of terrain, including horse poop, gravel, sand, and pavement. The #7 bus for Point E flies by me, and I throw my body forward into a run and catch the bus at the last minute (though there will be another in 15 minutes). I squeeze myself into the door of the DDD bus. The bus jerks to a start and I’m thrown against two men who hold me up and squeeze my shoulder when I’m back up. I put my hands in front of me like I’m pretending to be a shark and I squeeze through the masses to get to the ticket booth. I throw 150 cfa between some yellow-painted metal and I receive a crumpled, thin bus ticket which I promptly drop.
Just when I think the bus can’t get more crowded, I am being shoved forward again, and I run into a fellow SIT student. She’s too short to reach the upper bars, so I reach up, and she clutches my shoulder to keep steady. Now my shoulder is pressed up against the lower back of a middle-aged man in white robes, and my face is pushed up against another man’s armpit. The bus lurches forward, and I flex my left arm as hard as I can. The smell of body odor is overpowering, and I think about how mountain climbers must feel when they reach the top of the mountain where there is minimal oxygen.
After about 25 minutes, I fight my way off the bus and breathe deeply, making my way to SIT for class. Several minutes later, 4 other students arrive, incredulous that we fought our way off at the right stop.
This, I think to myself, is how most people get to work in the mornings.
As far as what all I’ve been doing lately besides smelling armpits, this weekend was a wonderful mix of spending time with my host family and meeting new Senegalese friends. On Saturday, we all went to Mbour and relaxed on a beautiful beach. It was a welcome change from the noise of the city. I couldn’t get over how wonderful the colors were and how lucky I was to be there.
I am full of feelings about gender and race politics here (and politics in general), but I am trying to err on the side of caution. I’ve only been here for two weeks, and what do I know about the world anyway?