Peace Corps Week – Teranga

Happy Peace Corps Week

It is during this week that all RPCVs look back on their experiences.  Some remember certain people, some remember certain moments, some remember the difficult times, some remember the happiest of times.  It is not, however just during this week that we all commiserate about those difficult moments when we were sick or stranded for hours without a car.  It is not just during this week that we laugh together about all the times we got things wrong or completely misunderstood something to the point of hilarity or embarrassment.  It is not just during this week that we find reasons to get together and bond over these moments that we had.  However, it is a good opportunity for us to look back and appreciate the country who made us who we are today, and share it with others.  These moments and appreciation are not limited to just this week, but I’ve taken the opportunity to post about it obnoxiously on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/personal blog site.  It’s a good excuse to reflect and remind myself of the things that really matter – each other.

So thank you for reading.  Following are some photos that have been sent to me since I have been gone.

When watching the video for the Peace Corps Video Week Challenge, it reminded me of so many moments and reasons why I loved Senegal so much.  First, have a look for yourself:

Senegal – the country of Teranga, or hospitality.  “Teranga… it is to do unto others, so that they will be in peace.”

img_9429

My neighbor Maira holds her new baby sister in her arms – photo sent to me from Binta Sy

Teranga means love.  It means taking care of one another.

img_9262

Being silly for Coumba – thank you for the photo Mista!

Teranga means accepting someone for who they are, not for how they look or what they believe in.

12096363_10154355841877575_9084503048339805753_n

Making rap songs about farming rice… thanks Maudo

Teranga means forgiveness.. forgiveness for when you do something wrong because you don’t understand how things are supposed to be done

14708188_577104885815527_2775345381238559621_n

Sharif – my tailor and one of my best friends – thank you for letting me know when I’m doing things wrong and how to do them right (nicely)

Teranga means patience.

img_3856

The hardest cross-stitch you  could ever imagine… But Gogol Kadja helped me master it!

Teranga means taking care of one another – treating everyone as your brother or sister

128d7323-767d-4806-984e-00574f58ae73

Kids from Ken Crawford’s training host family – thank you Ken for the photo to brighten up my day!

Teranga means food – always enough for EVERYONE

IMG_2512

Lunch with my family… the best part of the day. I miss the rice and fish!

Teranga means beauty

e4ef141a-6f03-4a7d-8377-b76be21b75f5

You may remember Binta from my previous post about her wedding – she was kind enough to send me this beautiful photo montage recently

 

Teranga means a place you can call home, no matter who you are or where you’re from or how long you have been away.  Home is a place that always welcomes you back and misses you while you’re away.  Home is a place where you feel safe and loved.  Home is a place where you feel comfortable.  Home is a place where you belong.  No matter who you are, you will always be accepted there.

Teranga is Mbolo Aly Sidy

 

What Do We Know About Islam?

“Terrorism” “They are terrorists” “Allah akbar” “The Taliban”

 

These are some of the responses I have been getting every day as I have been public speaking at my local high school.  My high school.  Where things change slowly and ideas even slower.  I have spoken at the high school or community group probably 15 of the 20 days I have been home.  In speaking with the high schoolers, I always lead in with the question, “what do we know about Muslims?” knowing full well the immediate, unflinching response.  Do they realize that they are labeling my host mother, Kadja, as a murderer?  That they are therefore unquestionably sure that my host brothers, who love to play soccer and currently are studying Physics and English at the university in Dakar, are going to pick up machine guns and attack innocent people?  No, they don’t realize this.  They do not mean to offend my host family and friends who I have grown to love and admire.  They don’t know little Kadja or Mamoudou or Amadou Diallo.

(Disclaimer – these only represent MY experience living in THIS SPECIFIC Muslim society in the Fouta region of Senegal and does not represent EVERY Islamic part of the world.  I merely hope to give an example of an Islamic society that will never make the news due to its’ lack of newsworthy ‘excitement’. I simply hope to demonstrate an alternate truth to the same reality)

IMG_2207

There are no Muslims here in this community, from what I can tell.  My own family has lived here now for 16 years and, for most of those years I would not have even known what the difference would have been.  How would any of these high school kids ever have had the experience of knowing anyone who was Muslim in order to know whether or not their prejudice is correct?  All they see on television is extremism, violence, warfare, and yelling politicians – riling us all up, scaring us, urging us to keep the terrorism away from our front door.  It’s no wonder they are scared.  Certain news channels, if watched consistently, can be very successful at building up ideas in the shape of truths in the minds of many Americans who may not have the financial means or prioritization to see and experience things outside of their comfort zones and understandings.  We cannot blame the effects of fearmongering on those whom it effects.  They are the result that does, however, perpetuate the act.

I have presented my experiences in Senegal to many different high school groups: Advanced placement students, drama class, culinary class, ROP childcare, AVID, computer/technology, English, US History, Spanish, and students chosen for the exchange program to Italy (to name a few).  Each of these classes represents a unique group of students from both extremes of privileged to the very disadvantaged.  The conversations were positive and eye-opening experiences for everyone involved – mostly me.  They brought me back to reality and allowed me to, once again, see my experience through the eyes of an American citizen.

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 8.46.07 PM

My presentation changed depending on the audience and class curriculum to keep it relevant and relatable, but some key components stay consistent.  Through these presentations, it has become evident to me which aspects of my experience are the most important to discuss.

Consistent Topics:

  • Stay involved in high school, go to college or find a way to contribute positively to society
  • What is Peace Corps and what are the basic aims of international development?
  • Development in Senegal and throughout Africa – shocking as it is to many, I had electricity, clean running water, and phone/internet service in my village. Not all of Africa lives in thatched huts.
  • Africa is a diverse continent made up of 54 different unique countries
  • Food! Everyone wants to know what the daily meals consist of if McDonalds is not the norm
  • The toilet situation and lack of toilet paper
  • Senegal is a Muslim country (95.4% according to Wikipedia). This is the topic I probably spend the most time on because it is both relevant and necessary when discussing anything about my experience in Senegal.

 

Back to the classroom…

“Ok, terrorism…?  That’s what certain news tells us about Islam?  That they’re all terrorists?” I lead… “Yea!” says the overly boisterous one in every class, always eager for sniggers from his buddies sitting around him.

As a product of this area and predominant way of thinking, I had similar concerns about non-Christian faiths, because I had only known one lifestyle.  You can probably guess my hesitations and my parents’ extreme anxieties about me, a very obviously white female, going to live in a predominantly Muslim country for two years of my life.  However, after living there and experiencing what was the most amazing, wonderful, and life-changing two years of my life, I cannot even fathom how wrong the current perpetuating stereotypes are that cover this huge religion in blanket statements and assumptions.

Granted, terrorism is real and affecting the world, but the people who are perpetrating these disgusting acts are the only ones from this entire global population who are ‘exciting’ enough to make the news.

Turns out this kind of news-worthy excitement is not necessarily a good thing.

Case in point: Senegal.  When I found out my Peace Corps placement was Senegal, I was immediately a little let down because it is not a widely known country to us here in America.  I had to google it, myself.  I would have been much more excited to have been assigned to go somewhere more flashy, like Kenya or South Africa.  These countries are places I have heard a lot about.  They make the news.  I see them on TV and in movies.  These places are exciting.  In retrospect, however, I cannot be thankful enough for ending up in a place that allowed me to learn about another culture, another religion, another worldview, in the safety and security of a politically and violently unexciting country.  Excitement came in more fulfilling ways.  I was not caught in the middle of any political strife or evacuated due to military coups.  Instead I was excited by breakthroughs in language and cultural understandings.  I was excited through my ability to learn about my own religion in the context of another.  To have open, honest, and respectful conversations about differences of understandings and beliefs.  I was excited to be seen as a person and not as my viewpoints, be it religious or political.  I was never labeled as ‘the Christian’ as we would label someone in our society, “the Muslim who works with me” “the Muslim guy in the office,” etc.… I was just Coumba (sometimes white person Coumba), but never “Coumba who does not agree with polygamy,” or “Coumba who eats pork and drinks alcohol.”  Just Coumba Demba Thiam.  Daughter of Kadja, who lives in the house of Hamath Thiam.

IMG_6470

As a female in a Muslim society, I covered my head.  This had multiple benefits: showing respect to the religion, marking me as a woman as opposed to a child, it kept the sun and heat off my head, and also allowed me to get away with not washing or needing to style my hair much.  Really, so many benefits, and few, if any downsides.

IMG_6795

As a female in a Muslim society, I never felt threatened walking alone.  I just never did.  My skin attracted enough attention, but the attention was never violent in any way.  I could walk at night, even in urban areas, and never feel in danger.  Maybe I was lucky, but I never had any instances of aggression towards me the entire time I was there.  This is much more than I can say walking around the streets in America.  Even in the quaint, sleepy town of Red Bluff, I would never dare to be out alone on the streets at night.

Living in a Muslim society, I never felt as if my possessions were in danger.  I only locked my door if I was going out of town overnight or for multiple days.  During the day, I could be in some town miles away, but I never locked my door.  It was common knowledge that I owned a computer, camera, clothes, a bike, and probably much more money than most people, and yet I never thought twice walking away from my room – the screen door barely latched, the purple curtain ruffling in the breeze.  Even after locking the metal door to leave for a few days, I always left my key with my host mother Maymouna who would keep it in a secret, safe place (even I don’t actually know where she kept it).  If there was an emergency, she would be able to access my room.  That was more important.

Living in a Muslim society, violence was extremely low.  I did not actually see any violence the entire time I was there except for the occasional quarrelling among transportation ‘aprantees’.  Murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. Qur’an 6:151 says, “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (i.e. murder is forbidden but the death penalty imposed by the state for a crime is permitted). 5:53 says, “… whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”

IMG_2317

The mosque of Mbolo Aly Sidy! Centered in the middle of the village, can be seen from the villages on either side.

What do we know about Islam in a place like Red Bluff, California?  Not much, if anything more than what is shown on TV.  The point I am trying to convey is that there is another side to every story.  Question what you see on the news.  Make your own informed opinions.

 

(Side note: after writing this, I was speaking in an alternative education high school and got an answer unlike any I had received previously.  I asked, “what do we see on TV about Muslims?”  The student who spoke up in the second row said, “Propaganda.”  Then ensued the most honest and boundary-pushing conversation of them all.  I was proud of them for the questions they asked and their general sincerity and respect.  I walked away with a new respect for a group of kids who would otherwise be labeled as ‘troubled’.  I call them: astonishing.)

 

Love in Senegal

Happy Valentine’s Day!

(Technically a day late…)

But in favor of the holiday I am going to repost a video that was posted by my fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Ian Yao.  This video is timely in that it talks about love in Senegal and how the caste system is still in play today, causing real life Romeo and Juliet stories every day.

http://www.france24.com/en/20160212-video-reporters-senegal-can-love-finally-beat-caste-system

As I watched the video, however, I couldn’t help but think things would be different if this were Mbolo Aly Sidy.  The video is based in Dakar, which has a very leaning-towards-Western mindset and things are much different there than they are in the more rural areas.  These two lovers were able to wait until they were much older (for the girl, especially) and choose who they wanted to marry.  They are the lucky few.  But it does also show the changes in society in this country.  It’s hard to represent a country with such variation between regions.

However, I hope you enjoy the video.  It’s quite cute.

The Journey Home

So I left my family with tears and sadness, knowing that I will be homesick forever; a part of my always there in Mbolo Aly Sidy.

Then onto Dakar where we met as a group of stage-mates to finish our 27 months of Peace Corps Service together.  (Well, the Sustainable Agriculture and Urban Agriculture volunteers together.. the Agroforestry and Community Economic Development volunteers had finished that previous week)

 

12243286_10101609212028211_5256692047046935300_n

It was a happy time and so fun to see one another!  Some of them I had only seen at the quarterly Sustainable Agriculture Summits, and the Urban Ag volunteers… there were a few who I really didn’t cross paths with at all during the two years.

During the COS (Close of Service) process, I was a bit conflicted.  On one hand, I was happy to have completed my ‘service’ of 27 months for the Peace Corps because it is an accomplishment that will help me when applying for jobs, and it signifies something ‘accomplished’; and end goal reached.  However, on the other hand, I was not at all mentally ‘home’ in America yet, like many of the other volunteers were.  There were some who had been counting down the days, minutes, meals until they would be back onto US soil.  Many had Thanksgiving plans back home to rush back to or Grad School deadlines to attend to.  I, however, planned to stay in Dakar until after Thanksgiving where I would then travel to South Africa.  I had originally planned to stay longer in order to make a trip to The Gambia, where I had not yet seen – and really felt that I should because it was almost technically part of the country.  I also have a distant relative there, whom I would have loved to have met for the first time.  Unfortunately (or fortunately maybe) I got so busy with people to see and things that I wanted and needed to do in Dakar that I was never actually able to make it to The Gambia.  I ended up staying with my best friend Ghuede and our friend Mista from Sierra Leone in Ghuede’s apartment instead of the American homestay that I was previously staying with.  Ghuede has been my best friend since the very beginning, and even though we are not always nearby each other and I didn’t always have time to spend with her, she was the most loyal and supportive friend I have ever met.  I was happy to spend my last few days with her.

IMG_7343

We had fun at Goree Island; me, Ghuede, and Mista!  They had never been, so we all went together.  It was such an amazing experience.  We felt like we ‘escaped’ Senegal for a day and I took them on a European (they would say American) vacation!

Such a memorable day for us all.

Then, Ghedde and Mista had to go back to the Fouta and I spent some time doing American things for a minute, like Thanksgiving at the U.S. Ambassador’s house.

IMG_7519

Then, all packed up and just BARELY under the weight limit, I flew away to South Africa!!!

IMG_7578

I arrived in South Africa and met my roommate from UCSD: Annie!!  Here’s how that worked: I had planned to travel to South Africa because

1. I wanted to go there,

2. I have distant relatives there,

3. I needed an intermediate stop between Senegal and home, and

4. I got a REALLY cheap flight there.

I had Facebook’d Annie and kind of off-handedly said, “I’m going to South Africa, you should travel with me!” Not thinking she would actually accept.  She said, “Ok,” and I said, “cool!” still not actually believing her.  Then, a few weeks later she wrote to me that she had booked her flight!  Wow! It was real then.  I felt really badly then when she wanted me to help her plan all these fun details of excursions and travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town and I was so mentally focused on Senegal and leaving my family and planning the going-away party that I was absolutely no help at all in assisting her.  I finally told her, “I like everything, I’ll do anything… Just book things and I’ll pay you back, I can’t focus on anything outside of Senegal yet.” And she took care of everything, Alhamdullilah.

IMG_3224

It was because of her that we walked with elephants! We saw ostriches! We pet cheetahs! Played with lemurs, explored the town of Oudtshoorn, and ventured into caves (well, that last one might have been my influence).  We traveled on the Baz Bus, which I highly recommend to anyone traveling in South Africa.  It is a bus that basically goes all over the country and stops off at any and every hostel in the country – and there are some amazing ones, all very cheap!

IMG_3623

After Annie left, I spent the rest of the few weeks there with my distant relatives.  Ok, so when I say distant relatives, here’s how it works:

Henry and Laura had Amy, Henry, Fred, and Burt.  Amy had Ray who had Derry (my grandmother) who had Karrie (my mom) who had me.  Henry had John who had Murray, David and Alison.  My great grandfather Ray Bridgman Cowles came to America when he was teaching zoology at UCLA back around 1930.  Therefore, MurrayDavidAlison and my grandmother are second cousins.  MurrayDavidAlison and my mom are second cousins once removed, and MurrayDavidAlison and I are second cousins twice removed.  (Correct me if that’s wrong).  So, basically family.  If we were in Senegal, Murray would be just my uncle and would treat me as his child, which is exactly how it was.  The three weeks that I stayed in South Africa, I lived with Murray and his wife Martha as if I were their daughter.  They included me as a part of their family, even taking me along on their family vacation out to a piece of beautiful property studded with waterfalls and wildlife.

IMG_3710

They helped me in ways they can’t even imagine.  They made the transition from Senegal to home manageable. They let me talk through a lot of things that I had seen and about how I had lived in order to actually come to meaningful conclusions to help me understand a lot of things by putting them into perspective.  I had been so ‘in’ Senegal that I had stopped looking at things in the American context or comparing things critically.  Their questions were educated and thought-provoking, it was so good for me to really meditate on these concepts.

Grace Bridgman (photo on right), daughter of Murray and my third cousin once removed, became my new sister.  She and I were very similar and had ridiculous amounts of fun together.

Did I mention South Africa is awesome?  Unbelievably beautiful country!IMG_3563

IMG_3603

IMG_3566

Leaving South Africa was hard!  I could have stayed there… applied for jobs… hung out on Long Street forever!  The weather was beautiful the whole time and I was just starting to get to know my way around… just in time to leave.  It was just what I had needed.  Just the right amount of time to really process my two years in Senegal and it was just different enough from both places that it made a very good in-between.  It decreased the ‘culture shock’ aspect of leaving Senegal because it was a new culture in and of itself, but was still similar to Western culture.

Some of my thoughts and mental wanderings throughout this process…

  • Senegal’s culture of peace and solidarity, very little alcohol/drugs, living together as large families possibly decreases angst and depression.
  • Devout Muslim culture made me look deep into my own religious beliefs and question what it was that I was looking for in a religion.
  • Having less makes you much happier and more appreciative of what you have… but also more generous.  Senegalese motto: “The more you give, the more you receive in return” be it wealth, kindness, or friendship.
  • Hospitality is a shared core value across multiple African cultures
  • It’s entirely unfair that I can fly back to America and to almost any country that I please with my American passport while people in Senegal can hardly leave the borders of their own country.
  • Also, while watching the homeless in my neighboring towns in California, I think about how employment is such a contentious issue.  There are many unemployed here in the US, and I don’t want to make assumptions about why that is or about their opportunities for employment.  All I will say is that there are some extremely qualified people in Senegal and other countries across the world who would make very qualified working professionals if they had the chance to even attempt at employment.  Most of them are unemployed, due to conditions in their own countries, but if they were able to apply to work in the US, they would absolutely crush it.
  • My whole mindset has changed towards issues of international development, and the possible and the dysfunctional ways of approaching them
  • Ownership – what does it mean?
  • Money management and fluidity – thinking about today vs. planning for tomorrow
  • Corruption – possibly just an extension of the solidarity and family/friends mindset, well-intentioned, but not applicable to government structure
  • Child-rearing – We are really overprotective and coddling to our children.  Kids are resilient and can handle a lot more responsibility than we trust with them.  They also learn from their mistakes and (sometimes) dangerous decisions very quickly, and are wiser for it.

IMG_2406

I want to continue this blog as a continuation of my thoughts and observations throughout the process of reentering the United States and with my reactions from others about my experience.  The learning process never stops, and it is after the fact that most of the understandings have been made clear to me.  Now, being submerged in the Western culture (and during the holidays, especially) it has been interesting now to approach things with a different mindset.  It is as if, while in Senegal and South Africa, I got new eyes.  My body and everything else may be the same, but these new eyes have lenses that capture things in a different light.. a different hue of understanding.  These new eyes can adjust back to the way they were before, or, if taken care of properly by mentally focusing on the changes in values and concepts formed, they can continue to forever filter vision of the world in the new hue, the newer, brighter (or darker, for some people) vision of the world and those around us.

 

Fété Coumba

Upon joining Peace Corps, I set a goal for myself.  If I change one person’s life in my two years in Senegal, my time here has been worth it.  What a surprise I got at my going-away party, when hundreds of people showed up to speak about what I have meant to them.  It’s not every day our expectations are exceeded hundreds of times over.  Machallah I am blessed.

This was not a work event.  This was not a training.  This was just my way of saying goodbye to my friends and family.

This day, from beginning, to end, and the days surrounding the event… this was the best experience in my whole Peace Corps career. This was a culmination of all the ‘work’ I had done throughout my life in Senegal.  It was my final program, my last ‘hurrah’ and the amount of people who attended proved to me that my two years in this village had been more than worth it!  It reaffirmed everything I had done and showed me exactly how many people cared and appreciated me and my work – hundreds.  It also made it easier to break the truth to people about my inevitable depart because, instead of telling people, ‘I am leaving soon, my contract is over,’ I would then add onto that the fact that I was to have a party in order to say goodbye to everyone. The reactions were classic: “I am going home soon”…”No!” (disappointment)…”But I’m having a goodbye party”…”Oh! Wonderful, we will be there, inshallah!” (No longer disappointed). It also kept me quite busy in the days leading up to the party because, it turns out, there’s a lot that goes into these events. I wanted to have dancing, theater, and thiossane (culture exposition). my impression, in attending previous celebrations was that these were activities that the kids already had together and they could just pull out of their pockets, but it turned out to be something we had to start from scratch.


“If you want to do theater or dance at all, Coumba, you need my help,” said Moussa Coumba. “And you should know that there’s a lot of preparation that needs to go into this, so I hope you’re prepared. You also should have really thought about this ahead of time, there may not be enough time to put it all together,” he warned.  I had myself a right-hand man. We began practices every afternoon with the kids for the dance performance and for the theater skit, with intermittent interruptions due to weddings and people traveling to farm in the wallo (see previous post).


This whole idea started off humble and small. I thought maybe I would have a nice party with my family and friends in our house. I purchased a sheep from my mother months ago and she had helped me raise it and take care of it.  It was now going to be our lunch.  When I began thinking of who I wanted at the party and which of them would be upset if I did not include them, and all of that, I realized that I actually had a lot of friends. And I actually wanted all of them to be there in order to see them before I left. Most of these friends had become more than just acquaintances… they were true friends. Many of them, I had spent the night at their house, or had gone to their wedding, or had been there for the birth of their child or death of their mother. These are many things I cannot say about most of my American friends.

 

IMG_2527

Thillo, my sister-in-law and I

The scale of the event changed dramatically with some news from abroad: Maxi Krezy was returning to Senegal (or so he said, casually via Facebook Messenger) I had been in touch with my friend Maxi Krezy on and off since he had left for the U.S. to work on his new album and memoire. He was supposed to have come to the Pete English Day back in April (or was it May?), but was unable to when the date coincided with the date he was slated to leave for the states. He had been there ever since, but said he would be home before I left for the U.S. I didn’t buy it though. As time got closer to my Close of Service date, I really began to doubt the validity of this claim. I didn’t doubt his intentions though. He asked me about the details of my party; at that point still in the small in-my-house stages, but when he said he would be taking part in it, that would change everything. If Maxi Krezy, world-renouned Senegalese rapper, one of the spearheads of African rap in the world today, says he is coming to a party, you can bet he’s going to step things up. I was now preparing for a concert with a discussion panel prior to the show discussing my chosen topic: female education, as we had discussed back in April.


Now time to step it up…

  • Rent speakers
  • Find DJ – luckily a friend of Maxi Krezy is a nearby DJ and immediately showed up to help, bringing all his equipment with him.
  • Procure shade structure
  • Procure chairs – from both the mayor’s office and the Qur’anic students
  • Approval by Mayor of both Galoya and Mbolo Birane
  • Clearance by Police
  • Invite everyone who’s phone numbers I had
  • Hold a Radio show

Sure enough, as promised, the day before the fété, Maxi Krezy showed up. Having had electrical difficulties that prior Monday at the radio station, we decided to go back to the radio that day. Better late than never. We (me, Maxi, DJ Fada, and Mr. Niang- an amazing counterpart in Thilambol) went to the radio station to announce the event. We announced to the world that Coumba Demba will be leaving. I was able to inform everyone about the event and express my gratitude towards everyone who has taken me into their family, as their friend, under their wing; taught me everything from, how to eat, how to milk a cow, to how to predict sand storms.


The day of the fete was perfect. I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, of course, but so was everyone else. They all really stepped it up, running to the neighbors to enlist more help with the cooking. My sisters made begniets and popcorn outside my room while my brothers took the sheep out back and slaughtered him, butchering him and bringing the meat to the group of mothers/neighbors/and friends who were working on the job of cooking the lunch. Alicia, my sitemate/sister/twin/best friend (pictured above) was my saving grace of the day as well, as she helped me keep my head on straight and even helped serve lunch! She was also the photographer.

2015-11-11 08.57.52
The kids took the charett (horse-drawn cart) to Mbolo Birane to get the chairs and another group arrived at the house to get the shade structure and set it up. Ropes were procured to make crowd barriers. The village bustled with excitement. (And this was all happening on a Thursday, not even a weekend). Guests arrived from Ndioum, Aire Lao, and neighboring villages and spent the day.


After the DELICIOUS meat-filled lunch, we began our procession to the school.  Guests began to arrive from as far as Boke Diawe, Thilogne.  Important people arrived from the mayor’s office.


The Eaux et foret (forestry officer) Abou Ly, pictured above, right, showed up, (among countless other important people). He was one of the people I have worked with in all of my agroforestry-related projects and is integral in much of our work here. I was honored that he came, as well as Madame l’mayor, Nafi Kane, who was even so kind as to bring me a gift of beautiful fabric!


Slowly, in ‘African time’, the music began to play and the village trickled in. After multiple suggestions and coaxing, I finally had to get decisive and say: “njehen! Puddorden joni joni!” Let’s go! We are starting right now! And it began!

I started it off with a speech to explain why I had brought everyone together on this day: “Today is for you. In these last two years, you have given me everything. I have gained a mother, a father, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, even children and grandparents. Today, I give to you in appreciation for all you have done for me and given to me and taught me. I arrived here as Dana: shy, unaware, unable to speak or tie my own head wrap. But today, I leave as Coumba Demba Thiam: strong, confident, and able to accomplish even the most difficult busumbura stitch in Senegalese needlepoint. Now I must leave so that I can return, successfully employed, so that I can make you all proud…”

When finished, I ducked inside the classroom to change into my next outfit, having promised myself that I wouldn’t get emotional in front of people. Speeches followed while I was in the classroom working to organize the people dressed in traditional wear and the theater performers. The speeches were an opportunity for everyone to talk about how they know me, our relationships, how we have worked together, reflecting on things I’ve done, things I’ve said, things I stand for, etc. Then we began the conference where Maxi Krezy spoke about women’s education and the importance of keeping girls in school, an issue of which I have dedicated much of my service towards, as many of you know after donating to my Michelle Sylvester Scholarships (THANK YOU). This is an issue that I had previously discussed with him, an issue of which I feel quite passionately. I knew, coming from him, it would hold that much more weight.

After many others had voiced their aggreance on the subject, it was time for the cultural display, or, thiossane (pronounced ‘cho san’) where all of us dressed in traditional wear paraded onto the stage.  I had not informed anyone of the fact that I would be participating in this core event. I insisted on coming out last. The reaction was unparalleled. The crowd lost it. Even Alicia and my guests had had no idea of my plan.

IMG_2570

‘Thiossane’


As we, the thiossane participants, danced to one Baaba Mal song after the other, my host mother Kadja broke through the crowd and danced towards me! I was beaming, and my joy was reflected on her face.

We danced for what seemed like hours, many people coming up and joining in to show their excitement and shared happiness.  Then came the theater performance.  I played the mother with two children who she hopes to enroll in elementary school that year.  Another family is in the same situation but decides, only after persistent begging, to enroll one child in school.  That child, due to pressures at home, drops out before taking her exams, and the family struggles to make ends meet.  Our children, however, succeed in their exams and get scholarships to study in America, showing how hard work and studying pays off.  Of course there are a lot of jokes (I play an illiterate woman with no idea what the words ‘surprise’ or ‘double-lined’ mean) and an obscene amount of scene changes.  It was all very funny.

Then for the rap!  Every aspiring rapper had a chance to take the stage.  Each was allowed one song.  The thing about rap in this country is that it didn’t really start to take hold until after American rap had been big for years.  American rap kind of tends to focus on topics such as sex, drugs, partying, drinking… you know what I mean.  The movement here, however, has had a chance to watch, from an outsider’s perspective, the effect that kind of music has on the youth of America and the kind of image it portrays for African Americans.  The rap and hip hop movement in Senegal (and I can see the trends expanding to many other African countries through popular music videos and songs passed around via bluetooth’ing) has taken a stand by using rap and hip hop for positive, developmental purposes.  This has been mobilized by those like Maxi Krezy and many of the other major musical artists and development agents.  Lyrics are now generally focused on topics of social mobilization towards development and aiming the energy of the youth towards building a better nation.  I never used to like rap and hip hop music, but since I have met Maxi Krezy and begun to listen to (and be able to understand) the lyrics of many of the local artists, I have found a new respect for the genre and for the musicians of this country as well.  Music has such a powerful influence over the youth of today.  It’s so inspiring to have musicians who really care about the culture of today and are working to improve the society of tomorrow, through youth and music.

IMG_7153

About 7 local rappers performed their songs.  Then Maxi took the stage and did what he does best.  It was fantastic.  By the end of the night, the entire schoolyard was packed with people all the way to the walls.  People were arriving by charrett even after we had ended the show (we ended relatively early so as not to disturb those in the village) and many of the out-of-town guests spent the night at friends’ houses in the village.  It was an amazing day/night.  One of those moments that make you feel alive and remind you that all the difficulties getting to this point were all worth it.  No event is perfect, but from my view, this one was.  It was everything I could have asked for.  That goes for the entire two years I spent here.  My time spent in Mbolo Aly Sidy was perfect.  The ups and downs made it real.  This place and the people have changed my life forever and will forever be a part of it.

IMG_2607

Min Jehii Wallo Jubboyde

Walking to the ‘wallo’ or, recessional river fields, at a brisk pace… so fast it’s hard to catch my breath. The boys are miles ahead of us, it seems, yet we keep them within eyesight because I, at least, do not know the way. It makes no sense, the way we are walking. We walk diagonally away from the village towards Mauritania and the Senegal River that divides our countries, but we are also walking in the direction of the neighboring village, Diaba. The land we are crossing seems inhospitable, and yet there are people scattered on the edges of our village and fields off in the distance.

2015-11-07 07.58.16

The ground looks and feels like cement… how is anything living here? Goats meander here and there, picking on whatever is clinging onto the ground to eat. Off in the distance I see camels foraging on the upper parts of the Acacia trees. But at our speed, I hardly have the breath to wonder out loud about the hilarity of these animals. Gogol Djeyneba and I are falling behind. The boys in front of us are carrying the tools for farming and our sleeping materials (blankets, mosquito nets, warmer clothes, plastic mats, etc) on their heads while the women are carrying the cooking supplies and food (on their heads too, of course). Even my little brother Adama (9 yrs old), the youngest of our group, had bags on his back and a bucket of yogurt in his hand.

2015-11-07 12.08.45

We reach the channel crossing to find it swimmable.  Later in the season, this will be dry and walkable, but today we need a boat.  And our feet turn into brown socks of mud that clings to you so tightly like suction, it feels at times like you may never be able to extract yourself.

2015-11-07 08.14.57

Walking barefoot now as our feet, clumped with mud, dry out a little, we continue… boys charging ahead.  We reach many muddy ravines similar to this one by the river and are forced to keep our shoes off because they are impractical by this point.  The only danger now are the hidden thorns inside of the mud…There’s no avoiding them.  You can only hope that the mud has dried hard enough to create a barrier on your foot.  If not, that thorn could be in your foot for weeks.  We pass through many fields that have already been cultuvated after the water had succeeded from this area to where it is today.

2015-11-08 08.31.54

2015-11-08 08.33.36-1

We continue to where the river has recently receded and we set up camp.  We are lucky to have our fields on this side of the river and not the other side… We watch people as they wait for the boat to come back so they can cross over to their side of the river to start their day/week in the fields.

2015-11-07 09.56.51

2015-11-07 09.45.42

The earth is cracked open with a huge crooked stick with a hoe end.  Then the ‘lougal’ is used to poke a hole in the hard ground for the seeds to be dropped in.  One man uses the huge stick to open the ground, the ‘lougal’ follows him, followed by the person with the bowl of seeds (beans, sorghum, wild watermelon) and then follows the person who fills up the holes with dirt.  Then nature does the rest.  The clay soil holds in water for long enough for the plants to come to maturity, and the nutrients from the flood waters feeds the plants.

2015-11-07 09.55.57

Lunch is prepared by Thillo, my sister-in-law, who uses what she has and makes the best dried fish and rice meal I have never tasted.

2015-11-07 13.56.332015-11-07 13.56.16

Not sitting for long, we return to work after lunch and I cross the river to go check out some other farms.  We worked until sundown and then bathed in the river, scrubbing our feet and clothes after a long day of work.  Then we set up our sleeping arrangements – plastic mats with mosquito nets around them.

2015-11-07 17.02.43

The night was so cold I was unable to sleep.  We were up before the sun, the men picking open the ground before coffee was even heated up.  Then the rest of us meandered out, shivering and groggy.

Another day of work ahead.  I head back to my side of the river to find that we have finished our section.  We will come back in a week or so to see if the water has receded enough to continue.

2015-11-08 08.08.21

The thrill of the wallo makes us dance and sing with joy!  Hayooo wallo!  Hayoo wallo!

2015-11-08 08.08.27

2015-11-08 09.26.55

Ajaraama

How to describe the feeling? I sit with a bowl of broccoli bacon chowder, ice water, air conditioning, and classical music playing in the background. The clean tile floors are cool to the touch, and I can feel my body temperature drop 10 degrees in the capitol of Dakar after leaving my village of Mbolo Aly Sidy

This morning I woke up under my mosquito net, the pathetic three-legged donkey awkwardly standing in my way as a walked to my room, carrying my blanket and pillow back inside, keeping an eye out for frogs. The mosque hadn’t even began to chant because I was up before the world to leave Mbolo Aly Sidy for the last time. All was still in the world except for my heart, which was breaking with every beat; the beats becoming rapid with tension and nervousness and unhappiness and loss… even before I had left the compound. I made sure my baggage was together and rechecked my empty room one last time and returned to my bed to wake up my mom, who had been awake, probably since I had gotten up. She told me to lay back down until the driver called. I laid there next to her looking up at the circle made by the net and how it enclosed us both like a hug, protecting us, keeping us together, and I turned away from her, crying as silently as possible.. Then the phone rang: the driver was coming. Coming to take me away from this life, to another complete opposite so drastic it hurt to think about. Here I am in a life, so comfortable, so accustomed, so inclusive and loving… and here I go. I wake up Malick, my brother, to help carry my bags and we haul one at a time out to the road. I sit on one bag, my mother on another, and my sister Kadja on the third. In the dark, I begin to cry, trying so hard to stifle my sobs. My mother’s breathing quickens and I know she is crying as well. No one speaks. My tokara (namesake) arrives in silence, gogol Hawa arrives in solidarity, Mista (my new friend from Sierra Leone) arrives to travel with me to Dakar. We all sit in silence, muffled sobs breaking the darkness. A luminescence in the distance signals the car’s arrival.

Gardo ko kootoowo – the one who comes, must always leave

Bags packed on top, we say our goodbye’s. Left hands given, as a way of saying ‘because I have offended you with my left hand, we must meet again so I can make amends to you.’ I can’t speak. No one speaks because all are crying. I can’t look anyone in the eye because it’s just too painful. My sister Kadja, I hug her, her body feeling so small and shaking with sobs. My mom puts her hand on my shoulder; it’s time to go. Mista helps me into the car and holds me while I cry, off and on, all the way to Ourossogui. The sun beginning to rise, I curl up to catch some sleep.

IMG_2420

These last few days in village have been undoubtedly the best. After spending the night in the ‘wallo’ fields and then on to have my extreme going-away party, I haven’t slept much and haven’t wanted to. I came to this village as Dana: not knowing what I wanted to do in life, where I wanted to go, unaware of this unknown culture and language, unsure of myself and my surroundings, timid. I left this village as Coumba Demba; a name that has become my personality, my persona, my strength. Coumba Demba is strong, self-aware, aware of others and how much each and every person must be valued, conscious of family ties, and loving of all. Dana loved all as well, but Coumba Demba has found a new depth to this emotion. My mother Kadja reminds me, by grasping her breast, ‘an ka bii am, mi moynii maa,’ You are my child, I raised (literally, breastfed) you. And it’s true. This community raised me from being Dana into being strong, confident Coumba Demba Thiam. They helped me along every step of the way, telling me what to do and what not to do, how to eat, how to dress, etc. Now I am at the point where I can call them out for doing things wrong and we all laugh about it.

IMG_2580

So now working backwards a little, let me tell about my going away party. The idea started off as a small family gathering in my house. Then Maxi Krezy, world-renowned, and one of the original Senegalese rappers, said he was planning on coming home from America in time to see me before I left. This changed things. Also, thinking of all the people I wanted to see at the party, I realized I was going to be inviting more than would fit in my compound. The party then moved to the school. I wanted the reason for this party to be to celebrate the Pulaar culture and the culture of the Fouta. This is the culture and the people I have grown to love so much. I have written a previous post about the loss of culture in this area and the shift towards Western ideals, which has its positives and negatives, so this day was to celebrate the roots of the beautiful culture and the people who I had learned from and appreciate in so many ways.

12063598_10154341228247575_5007813417194118846_n

This meant, however, a lot of organization, which I did not anticipate. I had to organize the participants of Thiossane (cultural wear), the dance group, and the theater group. I decided on ‘education’ as the theme of the day, since ‘agriculture’ is not really something I need to advocate for and the education of women in this area is a difficult subject that I feel passionate about. Our theater production focused on the importance of staying in school and Maxi Krezy had already expressed interest in helping me discuss the importance of education and women staying in school during the panel discussion.

 

I couldn’t stop smiling the entire day out of sheer joy.  From the second I woke up, I was running.  We made a huge feast of rice and meat for lunch, complete with fancy drinks throughout the day, afternoon snacks of begniets and popcorn, and just all-out happiness.

IMG_2474

Alicia, my site-mate/twin/support network/sister, helping to serve my lunch

My friends came from all over the Fouta!  Maxi Krezy came from Dakar (he made the longest trip), my friend Amadou Diallo, from Ndioum, came back from Dakar right in time for the event, Baba Sy came from Aire Lao, guests also came from Diaba, Bogguel, Loumbal, and even people from St Louis showed up for the show!  My neighboring village, where I spent most of my working time, said that night, Mbolo Birane was empty.  No one was there because everyone had come to my party and stayed the night in my village.  All of the people I wanted to see before I left, showed up.  All of them!  Even thought I didn’t get to have much time to talk to them because of the huge-ness of the event, just seeing their faces or hearing their speeches made my heart full of happiness.

IMG_2607

My mom broke through the crowd to come dance with me!

 

Ndiyam, so boyyi in channgol fof, ko mayo fatii – the water that stayes for a while in the channel, must eventually go to the river (all good things must come to and end)