Author Archives: Dana

About Dana

After traveling to West Africa, I realized the values that mattered to me include acknowledgment and appreciation of individuals and their creativity. Spontaneous positivity comes when you least expect it. Never be too quick to judge.

Homecoming

Homecoming.  Coming home.

Is this even going to work?  Is it going to be worth it?  What about the expectations?  I’ve been away for so long, what if they don’t even remember me?  I haven’t been good about calling people… there are people who I have never called since I left, even though I honestly intended to.  I haven’t been sending money to my family or my namesake like they expected me to… What are they going to say?  All I can picture are the complaints.  The questions:  “Why haven’t you called me? Why didn’t you send money when my baby was born?  Didn’t you hear about my father passing?  You should have come to pay your respects.”  The dreaded questions.  Of course the taunting would all be in good fun, but I can never help but feel that the underlying sentiment… is honesty.

Every month and year that goes by; me in America with my microwaves, air conditioning and sparkling water, them in Senegal… my guilt grows.  I know I am not alone with this feeling.  Anyone who is from Senegal or has ever lived in West Africa has probably felt similarly.  What did I do to deserve being born in such a society where I have my own car and a load of laundry doesn’t take an entire day of my life?  Senegalese men living abroad face an even more daunting dilemma: any money that they make, twice that amount is expected by their wives, friends, parents, etc. back home.  The amount that we make here and in Western countries compared to the amount they could hope to make there in the villages is catastrophic.  What is not understood, however, are the costs of living in the Western world.  But maybe that’s ok.  Maybe it’s better not to know.  Better to live with an illusion of hope.  Of perfection. Just maybe not at the expense of your loved ones abroad, who want nothing more but the best for you.

These are the fears.  The guilt seeping through your being, keeping you from sleeping.  As time goes on, pushing it further and further down helps with the fatigue.  Slowly it gets easier.  Until one day you decide to go back.

 

The Preparation

 

What preparation?  All you need is a ticket, right?  At least that’s the first step.  My trip had already been postponed (mentally, of course) due to my new job and moving to DC.  Now I had been in DC for a while and the feeling of urgency returned… I have to go back.  I have to go visit.  I have to visit Senegal before I take any other trip anywhere else.  I have to prove to my family, my community, that I will return.  If I go anywhere else… a vacation, a work trip… before making the trip back to Senegal, the guilt would no doubt eat me alive.  With social media, I would subconsciously be kept accountable.  They would know. (Would they?) Surely they would know. How could I rationalize that?  I have to go back.

First step.

Flight tracker.

Find flight.

Sitting in airport on my way home from somewhere, maybe California.

Buy flight.

Buy house.

………………………….wait………………………….

That wasn’t part of the timeline.

Shoot!  That was a ridiculously big investment I wasn’t planning on at this moment in time.  But too late, it’s done… the Senegal trip looms in the distance.  I push it out of my mind (quite an easy task, as the house has consumed my entire mental capacity at this moment in time).

Then the day arrives and I worry I haven’t done enough.  I haven’t bought enough.  What I have won’t be the right things.  I run to WalMart, the Dollar Tree, Ross… frantically gathering things that would be useful or desired.  Why is this so difficult?  I know why.  Because no matter how much I bring, it will never be enough.  It will not be the right thing for the right person.  These are my fears, causing me to spend much too long deciding between scents of lotions and quality of wallets.  Will these things make up for the fact that I haven’t called?  No.  No, they won’t.

Bags packed, I fly to Senegal.  I can’t say the feeling I felt was excitement.  More so it was anticipation.  Nervousness.  Fear.

South African flight.  Every white person on this flight is South African or headed to South Africa, I quickly realize.  The guys are all of similar age and unkemptness.  I learn that they are seasonal workers who have been in the Midwest farming all summer and are now headed back to South Africa for their summer to return to work their family’s farms.  One saunters up the aisle and greets me in Afrikaans, shaking my hand heartily.  After realizing that I don’t understand, he asks if he can ask me a question.  “What are the people called who walk up and down the aisle?”  Flight Attendants, I respond.  His friendly smile is infectious.  He and the guy next to me, both around 21 years old, proceed to get extremely drunk, the attendants slipping them unlimited mini whiskey bottles.  I ask him how he liked Kansas.  His reply?  “Kansas was so flat you could watch your wife run away for three weeks.”

6am – Touchdown at Blaise Diagne International Airport.  Welcome from the captain: “The weather in Dakar today is ‘fine.’”

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Is this real?

Today is the holiday: Mauloud – the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.  I have to somehow get to my village in time for this event.  The transit from airport to village could take anywhere between 10 and 24 hours, depending on road conditions, vehicle incidents, vehicle issues, police along the way.  Luckily, no one knows I’m coming.  NO ONE.  So if I don’t make it in time, no one will be disappointed but me.

Then, the unexpected happens… EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT.

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Bassirou.  Classy man.  He’s single, ladies!

At the airport waiting for me is Dika, one of my closest friends in Senegal, and my other friend Bassirou, who has rented the vehicle and will be the driver for my adventure.  We load my three suitcases into the trunk with the unsolicited help of an airport attendant who followed us to our vehicle and we are on our way as the sun begins to rise.  The haze in the distance and the smell of the ocean wafting through the window hits me with nostalgia.  In my daze, I can do nothing but laugh.  Am I really here?  Did I really do this?  We drive through the city, traffic slowing our progress.  Today being the holiday, many others are also eager to get to their place of celebration.  I am not the only one eager to be with my family.  People are piled into cars, on top of busses, hanging onto ladders, out of doors.  We speed by them when we can, a series of uncountable near-misses.  I relax into the chaos.  The city melts away in the dust and haze, the baobab trees becoming more prevalent as the haze retreats to the horizon.  The ride seems to take forever.  We take an unfamiliar route, but I trust that Bassirou knows the best possible way, as he travels this road monthly, if not more.  The unfamiliarity of the road and the emptiness of the shops along the way unnerves me, but it’s still early in the morning and the holiday is upon us.  We stop in Dourbel for breakfast at a sandwich stand across from the health bureau Bassirou often works at.  I insist on a glass of café Touba at the breakfast stand and immediately proceed to burn my tongue.  Clearly I have forgotten some critical aspects of this country. We get our omelet sandwiches and coffee and continue on our way.

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Omlette Sandwiches! And Cafe Touba

Suka Naayo – Baaba Maal playing in the car.

The road is long, but fast.  Eventually we get close enough that we have to decide whether to eat lunch in Ourossogui or press on until we arrive.  We decide to push it until my village.  However, I did not expect the state of the road to be as terrible as it was.  Bassirou had warned me that they were ‘fixing the road,’ but what he should have said was, ‘they have destroyed the road and replaced it with a wide expanse of flat gravel with a series of detours that lead you into the desert with no directions on how return to the would-be road.’  This inevitably has something to do with the upcoming Presidential election in February.

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Road construction as it comes through Mbolo Aly Sidy

Exhausted, we arrived in Mbolo Aly Sidy and almost drove straight through it without noticing.  I did not recognize it, for the buildings along the roadside had changed and there were many more shops than I remembered.  That, along with the lack of road, it was a completely different place.  My friend Guedde awaited me on the side of the road.  We picked her up and she and I hugged in the back seat, both of us in disbelief that this plan had actually worked!  Overjoyed to see Guedde, we discreetly unload my luggage into her house, hoping no one will arrive at the house amidst the chaos of the private car parked in the lawn.  All I want is to eat some delicious rice and meat, I’m famished at this point.  She helps me to wrap myself up in a beautiful green piece of fabric, spinning me and draping the fabric around my face.

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Guedde and I

We all drive over to my host family’s house, the Thiam house, to complete the surprise.  I walk into the compound to sounds of disbelief.  “It’s COUMBA!!!!” The kids exclaim.  The women, all in their respective locations – Neene (my mother) Kadja and Gogol (aunt) Faty on the plastic woven mat near the shade structure, Gogol Djeyneba running around as always, Gogol Hawa on her wooden bed outside her window, and Gogol Maymouna on her bed outside of her building’s front door.  They all rise, one at a time, as if in a dream.  I reach Neene Kadja first and she wraps me in her embrace, laughing and repeating my name.  Not knowing what to say, or having anything to say, I burst out laughing, quickly turning into tears of joy.  Kadja doesn’t let go, feeling as if she does, I will disappear and she will awake from this dream.  The other mothers have reached us by this time, each embracing me in turn, expressing their disbelief that I have returned.  This is what this entire trip was for; this moment.  And it is as sweet as I could have imagined.  The gratitude in their eyes is worth a thousand airplane tickets.  The house is the same, yet different.  There is a new open concrete shade structure in the center and fresh paint adds to the brightness that always fills the courtyard.  My heart full, I feel as if this could still quite possibly be a dream.  As my exhaustion begins to hit, the village children screaming outside the compound remind me that I can retreat into the safety of Guedde’s house as we all prepare for the evening’s celebrations.  My family is confused as to why I am not staying with them, but Guedde and Dika conduct the explanations for me as I promise to see them later at the mosque and again tomorrow (and every day that I am here, although they don’t know how long that may be).

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The ladies of the Thiam house

That evening, we relax at Guedde’s house, and my Tokara (namesake) Coumba Demba Anne arrives to spend the evening with us.  She is the most amazing conversationalist (there is even a word for that in Pulaar), and her presence commands the attention of everyone within earshot, her points always honest and valid, yet shocking and sometimes risqué, as she says the things everyone thinks, yet fears to express out loud.  I am in awe of the way in which she speaks, wishing I had a recording device in order to listen back to the way she captivated the ears of the compound enwrapped in her stories.  I, however, curled up on the foam mat next to Guedde making tea, began to drift in and out of sleep.

Later that night, we all gathered our blankets and walked to the mosque for the Maouloud celebration, alive with the chanting of men young and old.  The chanting rang through the speakers as the floodlights illuminated from the front of the mosque.  Through the speakers, one could tell that one or two men held the microphones, but surrounding them were many more voices echoing their words.  The men filled the walled courtyard around the mosque, entering and exiting the building with purpose.  A group stoked the fire under the huge steaming pot of coffee, another group nearby tended to a similar pot full of strong green tea and sugar.  They delivered the coffee and tea to the women spread out around the front and sides of the mosque, sitting on their blankets, covered from the waist up with large shawls and scarves, rocking back and forth to the melodic chanting.  Occasionally, the chanting became loud, the intensity increasing.  The power evoked a sense of awakening that wafted over the crowd like a wave, and like the tidal surge, the women began to rise, starting with those closest to the front.  As they stood, the white scarves created whitecaps on the rush of energy surging backwards as the lights appeared to increase in brightness – reflecting off of the hundreds of female heads and shoulders enwrapped in revelation.

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2013, Gogol Faty

Flashback to December 2013… My first Mauloud… I had no idea what to expect.  I had had very little explained to me about this holiday other than: “It will be so ‘welli’ (great/delicious)”.  They had described dancing and singing and lots of snapping of fingers.  They had described endless coffee and tea (and I expected snacks as well to go with these…?).  They described a night full of fun and excitement… or so I thought.  Granted, I had been in country for 3 months at this point, only two of those months including exposure to this new Pulaar language.  There was inevitably going to be a lot lost in translation.  I pictured holidays in America, full of fun and friends and family.  I pictured parties and gatherings.  I had experienced Tabaski and Tamxarit at this point – both holidays involving feasting and evening visits to the houses of family and friends.  Tamxarit actually resembled a form of cross-dressing Halloween, full of excitement and debauchery (very tame debauchery, mind you).  So the description, as I had understood it, made me very excited, anticipation for the holiday keeping me awake as the rest of the house rested prior to heading to the mosque.  I felt as if we would be late, nervously awaiting the movement of the women from my house, hoping we weren’t missing the action.  Finally the moment arrived and we headed to the shade structure facing the mosque.  Most of the village – if not all – surrounded the golden building.  I shared a blanket with Gogol Maymouna, listening to the repetitive chanting, wondering what it meant and when it would stop.  We sat for hours.  I entertained myself by straining my neck to see what was going on closer to the mosque.  I couldn’t see much and it appeared not much was actually happening.  No coffee or tea made it back to us and the temperature began to drop.  I had on my new green dress and a lime green shawl wrapped around me.  I wrapped it tighter as I began to shiver.  After standing up and sitting down a few times, I began to think, “it must be getting close… whatever it was that was going to be so ‘welli’ must be about to happen.  My phone clock said 4am.  I laid down next to Gogol Maymouna, hoping her warmth would radiate towards me.  I tried very hard not to move, shocked that I could actually feel so cold after the past few months of stifling heat.  Whenever the excitement was to happen, I’m sure I would know it, and I would be awake for it.  I didn’t want to miss it.  A haze of light began to emerge as the sun began to inch towards the horizon.  Sunrise was upon us.  Gogol Maymouna began to stand, nudging me to get off the blanket so we could fold it and go home.  I jerked awake… Did I miss it??  “Let’s go home,” Gogol Maymouna announced, “wasn’t that ‘welli’?”  “Yes,” I said, “so ‘welli’.” Still confused as to whether or not I had missed something, I groggily gathered my phone and readjusted my shawl as we all shuffled back to our houses, parting words exchanged as groups entered their doorways as we passed each house as if in a dream.  I remember thinking, that was the strangest holiday I have ever experienced… I think I will skip this event next year.

…And here I am years later, enjoying every chilly second of it.

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Kadja Basse, Binta’s mother

The rest of the visit in Mbolo Aly Sidy went by in a blur.  Every day involved a visit to my host family’s house, wandering through the village, I greeted old friends and kids that had grown up while I was gone.  I had called Sharif, my tailor, a few months ago, hoping he could make clothes for me in time for my arrival.  I made up an elaborate story as to not give away the secret.  Here is what I told him: “A Peace Corps volunteer is going to be traveling through the Fouta on her way to Ourossogui.  She’s going to pick up the clothes from you on the road as she passes through the village, so have them ready so you can hand them to her.  She will be there on X date (the date I was to arrive).  Make sure they are ready for her when she passes through.  I will send you the money now so you can buy the fabrics.”  Fool-proof plan, right?  Wrong.  But it did succeed in confusing the heck out of him.  By the time I left, I did have three new outfits though – one American style dress and two complets (matching top and skirt outfits).

 

Friends came to visit from other villages and spent the day with me.  I went for my morning runs every morning, just like I used to.  I surprised my bread baker in the mornings after my runs and chatted with him and the customers as they arrived in his shop.

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Ada Gueye, professional baker, professional wrestling commentator

“How many years are you here for this time?”

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“Where have you been?  Dakar this whole time?”

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This is what 100 years old looks like.

“Where were you?” “America.” “…Mery??” (Mery – village in Mauritania)

Things I have missed:

The sound of a bird walking on the tin roof

High fives every time something funny is said or a good point has been made

Greetings – endless greetings, the repetition melodic

The donkeys.  Those freaking donkeys.  And the cows…

 

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Gogol Houleye wants everyone to know these are her cows.  And that they are for sale.

The best night of the visit proceeded like this…

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Sharif my tailer, classy as always

Stopped by Galle Sy Siibe (the house of the Sy family) to hang out with Serif and his extended family.  He had picked up my clothes from his tailor shop two villages over after I informed him of the brevity of my visit.  He thought I would have time to go to his shop, get adjustments made, kick it, etc…  But luckily, the clothes fit perfectly, as he had never forgotten my measurements and I have not changed since last outfit.  I lay in bed with Faty (his cousin and now wife) and Binta (his cousin and sister-in-law) looking at photos on my phone, explaining what I could about places they would never know.  While Serif prayed… the wuulis (suitcase serving as a dresser) fell on him as he bowed in prayer, just as he had warned could happen because it was very unstable. We stifled our hysterical laughter as he continued to pray. When he finished he addressed me: “Coumba, what did I tell you last night?!? This wuulis is unstable, it should have never been arranged like this!” We laughed and laughed and laughed as he proceeded to tear the room apart and rearranged the baggage against the wall. Faty offered to help but he playfully said No! You clearly cannot arrange baggage well so I have to do it for you!

Still giggling, I left their house and headed for my (Thiam) house. I came to tell them that I had decided to leave a day later than expected. I had changed my program.  I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. They were about to eat dinner (carrow – a porridge similar to tapioca pudding) so I ate with them but only a little because I knew I had vermicelli waiting for me when I returned to Guede’s. Gogol Maymouna was not happy about how little I ate and made a fuss that I didn’t eat dinner there. “You didn’t eat at all,” she said displeased. “I ate, really, I’m good.” I said, casually making excuses as I left out the door nearest to her, wishing them goodnight, happy to be able to see them again one more day.

I took the shortcut through the house of Baaba Mamoudou Sy where my friends Houley and Djeyneba live. They were cooking rice for dinner. “Rice for dinner?” I exclaimed. They laughed at me. “Give me some of the ‘coine’ (rice stuck to the bottom of the pot)!” Houley scraped out the bottom of the pot for me as Issa, her husband, came over to greet me. As we chatted, Houley handed me a huge bowl of coine as she finished plating the bowls of rice to deliver to the different groups in the house.  I exclaimed, “I don’t eat rice at night but I do eat coine!” They all fell apart laughing.  Issa explained that it’s the coine that gave birth to rice.  It’s the coine that cooks the rice because it is on the bottom.  I ate a few spoonfuls and then hurriedly made excuses to leave.  That, no I’m sorry, I couldn’t spend the evening there hanging out with them, that I had guests waiting for me at my house.

Guede called my phone to see if I was coming soon. I told her I was on the road, which was true, but I still had to stop at Coumba Demba’s house to inform her of my travel plans for the day after tomorrow instead of tomorrow, which I did quickly. She then walked me to where the road meets the trail to Guede’s house and left me there to attend to whatever guests were at the house.

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Baaba Adama Anne, Guedde’s father and my new adopted host father. One of the kindest men I have met.

I apparently had missed the fact that a large part of why these guests had come over to  Guedde’s house was for me. I knew people were coming over but I assumed it was just family – people from Acé’s (Guedde’s grandmother’s) house, but when I arrived, they all exclaimed, “You, Coumba, you took way too long!” “You’re so right, I took a very long time. I’m sorry.” They had been waiting for me to eat dinner… oops! I set down my things inside and we began to eat; the women and children at one bowl and the men at the other. There was a relatively large group of men, 6 or 7 of them that evening. In the dark, I couldn’t yet recognize them. One of them began asking me about marriage, of course, the topic as entertaining as it is inevitable. I pretended I couldn’t hear/understand him, yelling “What?! I can’t hear! Sorry!” So he said, ok when you’re done eating we will talk about how you need to marry this young man sitting next to me. “In that case, I’m never going to finish eating” I said. Everyone laughed. I ate very slowly but I ate a lot! The vermicelli and meat with onion sauce was so delicious, I regretted all of the food I had eaten at the other houses en route home. They finished eating and haggled me to finish faster, to which I replied I would never be finished. I was working on eating all of the dinners in the Fouta that night, I informed them, to which they almost died laughing.

Finally finished, I sat myself down right in the middle of them (not at all socially acceptable to do, but this is Coumba and this is what she is doing) and we began chatting.

The conversation that ensued was one of the funniest conversations I have ever been a part of the entire time in Senegal.  My friend Sire’s father, who usually lives in Dakar so I have never previously met him, was the ringleader of the group.  Sire himself has a huge personality, becoming well-known and successful in creating comedy skits on YouTube.  His personality pales to that of his father, I quickly learn.  His father (I have forgotten his name, so I will proceed to call him Sire’s father) decrees to the group that his entire goal in life is to own a donkey that he can ride bareback to the fields to farm.  This gets a raucous laugh from the men, as there is nothing lower class and more ridiculous than riding a donkey.  Let alone bareback.  And with his fanciest caftan outfit???  The other older man there, Souleye, I remember from when I used to live here.  There was a time when he was insistent on marrying me, making me his third wife.  After months of employing some of my more creatively hilarious rejections, he eventually gave up.  Now, however, it appears he has thought about this subject and employs a new approach: “You know that, in America, there are many, many older women who are divorced or who have lost their husband, am I right?  Those women need husbands.  I’m right here!  So, Coumba, since I now realize that you will never take me as your husband and you will never agree to be my third wife, you must do this for me.  You must find me an older women in the United States – she doesn’t even have to be pretty – and you need to tell her about me.  I am here, waiting for her.  I will love her unconditionally, as long as she brings me to America.  Ok?”  I laugh at his new plan, but his face is serious.  Oh, Souleye.  More discussions about polygamy ensue and I reiterate the argument I use every time.  I could never be a co-wife, as when I marry someone, I am going to want to spend as much time with them as I can.  I may be selfish, but I don’t want to share.  I understand the functional benefits of having another women to help cook, clean, and raise children, but I want a man who loves me and only me.  Call me a hopeless romantic, but I believe this is true and I’m still single because I’m waiting for this to become a reality for me.  The men being men, harmless sexual jokes followed, everyone had a good laugh at my expense, and the topic was changed.  Night drew in and we walked the men to the road to see them off.  Souleye turned into his compound, shouting back to me: “Don’t forget our deal, Coumba! Look out for/help me, ok?”  I responded, “But what if your wives find out?” Then, from a window in the dark, one of them shouted, “We know!  He has been found out!” To which we all broke down into hysteria all over again.

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What a spread!

Every morning Guedde would outdo her breakfast from the previous day.  We laid in bed for hours in the afternoons talking about plans for the future, about men, about life, about everything.  Her candidness and wholehearted appreciation for me are why she will always have a special place in my heart.  If I could do anything in my life, I would bring her to the United States.  The things I wish I could show her… I wish she could experience… I am still searching for an avenue to make this a reality.

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Never having children of her own, Guedde loves and cares for all children as if they were her own

Dika and I went to Mbour, a tourist town by the beach where he teaches English in private schools and adult education facilities.  We explored the city at night, enjoying the attention we received – a white person in Senegalese clothing.  It’s possible many of them had never seen such a sight.  Busses and motorcycles almost collided due to the rubber-necked drivers, looking back in disbelief.  I don’t think a second of this trip went by that I was not laughing.

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Turning heads…

To Dakar for one night before my flight.  I stayed with my Sister Kadja (named after my host mother who is also her mother, having adopted both of us) who I am supporting through her college studies in the capitol.  She is a very outspoken girl.  She has told her entire family in the compound about my support for her studies, and they treat me as if I am royalty in demonstration of their appreciation for my contribution to their family.  I am again humbled as I have been every single second of this trip.  I don’t want to leave.  Do I have to leave?  People come to visit, having heard that I am here in Dakar.  We go to the market in downtown Dakar and I tell social media that I will be there at a specified time.  Friends appear who I have never even met before, some who I have only been introduced to through social media and other friends.  All bring me gifts.  I waltz through the fabric store as if I own the place, as I already know the prices for everything.  I demand what I want (such is the Senegalese way) and we go home, Kadja and Dika carrying my winnings of the day.

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Cheikna Ly, my friend from Galoya

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Alison Sy, a friend from Mboumba who I had never actually met in person but had been introduced through our friend Amadou came to greet me in downtown Dakar

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Night comes and it’s time to go to the airport.  Kadja’s uncle has arranged for a car to take me to the airport.  I say goodbye, but this time I know it’s not goodbye.  I will be back.  I will be back again as this Coumba.  Not Coumba the Peace Corps volunteer.  Coumba Demba Thiam, the strong, successful woman who is loved and appreciated by a community because she, alone, is enough.  She, having come back, has proven that she cares.  That she is a part of this community from now until eternity.  No matter where she is in the world, she is connected to Senegal and to Mbolo Aly Sidy and to the fouta because of who she is.  Because of who she has become.  Because of who she will continue to be.  She is loved.

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I am loved.

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Guilt.

Is this even going to work?  Is it going to be worth it?  What about the expectations?  I’ve been away for so long, what if they don’t even remember me?  I haven’t been good about calling people… there are people who I have never called since I left, even though I honestly intended to.  I haven’t been sending money to my family or my namesake like they expected me to… What are they going to say?  All I can picture are the complaints.  The questions:  “Why haven’t you called me? Why didn’t you send money when my baby was born?  Didn’t you hear about my father passing?  You should have come to pay your respects.”  The dreaded questions.  Of course the taunting would all be in good fun, but I can never help but feel that the underlying sentiment… is honesty.

Every month and year that goes by; me in America with my microwaves, air conditioning and sparkling water, them in Senegal… my guilt grows.  I know I am not alone with this feeling.  Anyone who is from Senegal or has ever lived in West Africa has probably felt similarly.  What did I do to deserve being born in such a society where I have my own car and a load of laundry doesn’t take an entire day of my life?  Senegalese men living abroad face an even more daunting dilemma: any money that they make, twice that amount is expected by their wives, friends, parents, etc. back home.  The amount that we make here and in Western countries compared to the amount they could hope to make there in the villages is catastrophic.  What is not understood, however, are the costs of living in the Western world.  But maybe that’s ok.  Maybe it’s better not to know.  Better to live with an illusion of hope.  Of perfection. Just maybe not at the expense of your loved ones abroad, who want nothing more but the best for you.

These are the fears.  The guilt seeping through your being, keeping you from sleeping.  As time goes on, pushing it further and further down helps with the fatigue.  Slowly it gets easier.  Until one day you decide to go back.  fullsizeoutput_362f

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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

Teranga means beauty

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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)

 

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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