Tag Archives: #Fouta

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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Peace Corps Service By Numbers

Months in country: 22

  
Books read: 9

Movies watched: ~21

TV series completed: 4

Packages received: 21

Fish bones swallowed: 1000+

Rolls of toilet paper used: 4

Mosquito bites: ~40

Ant bites: 15+

Scorpions in my room: 2

Courses of Cipro taken: 2

Courses of Giardia meds taken: 2

Days spent in Dakar sick bay: 8

Days spent in hospital (both Dakar and US):12

Pairs of flip-flops lost and/or broken bought: 7

Meters of fabric purchased: ~50

  
Rams killed in my presence: 6

Heads eaten: 2

  
Chickens I have killed: 4

Stage mates gone home early: 11?

Kilometers biked: 100+

Hours by car to my regional house: 4-8

Number of trips to the capitol: 11

Number of villages visited: 42

Number of people in my village: 700-1000

Number of boutiques: 5

Number of tailor shops: 2

Number of elementary school classrooms: 4 for 6 classes

Buckets currently owned: 8

Weight able to be carried on head: full benior of water, ¾ rice/seed/grain sack

Blankets embroidered to completion: 0.74

Batches of soap made: 9

Tree nurseries created: 6

Trees outplanted: 221

Trees still living: maybe 30

Pulaar proverbs memorized: 11

Number of conversational languages: 4

Number of namesakes: 3+1cat

Funerals attended: 9

Weddings attended: 13

Baby baptisms attended: 20

Babies born in the family: 3

Vacations taken: 1

Number of lifetime friends: Too many to count

Months left in country: 3.5

Sharif and Sacko, my two best friends in Mbolo Aly Sidy

Sharif and Sacko, my two best friends in Mbolo Aly Sidy

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Interpreting Interpretation

I often get asked about what my work was like in America. Seeing as how my work here is agriculture, they typically want to know about my experience and qualifications. This is completely valid. This is also probably why Peace Corps urged me to get more agricultural experience under my belt before going into Peace Corps as an Agricultural Extension Agent. It would have probably been a really great idea to do that. But, alas, Park Service pays much better than working for free on someone else’s farm. Not to mention how much I LOVE Park Service work. The 9-month wait for my Peace Corps Senegal service to begin timed perfectly to allow for a summer season (May-Sept).

There are National Parks here in Senegal, but they are typically known as places where they keep the wild animals away from the people and vice versa. Or, usually just referred to as, ‘the trees.’ The idea of working in them is not usually considered, especially where I live. The National Park is in the south, near Kedougou and Kolda region – very far away. So I was describing myself as an eaux et foret agent (the government forestry agents in charge of the distribution and protection of trees) because it was the closest comparison I could think of that they would be able to relate to.

Then the other day I started to realize I could better explain the role of Interpretation, now that my language abilities have greatly improved. I was talking to people now about Interpretation in the Park Service and how being able to interpret the resources to visitors is important so that they will hold the resource in their hearts and be able to feel their importance. If they love something, like a tree, they would see it for more than just cooking wood.

Park Service Interpretation as defined by NPS: “When most people hear the word interpreter, they think of someone who translates the meaning of one language into another. In a museum, zoo, or park setting, interpreters “translate” the meanings of artifacts, collections, events, and physical resources into a language that helps visitors understand these resources.”

I decided to give my friend a more in depth example the other day. This friend happens to speak English so I was able to extrapolate more than I would be able to in Pulaar. Here’s what I came up with as an example of an Interpretation program I would present about the Fouta.

The Land of the Fouta

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The Fouta region of Senegal is the southern part of the Sahel Desert. It is primarily sand with scattered trees. This land is like the people who live on it. The sand itself came from other places, long, long ago. It came from Egypt, it came from Mauritania, it came from Mali, Morocco. So did the humans, migrating and traveling, herding their cattle and livestock from place to place, setting up shelter wherever they were. So does the sand. This Fouta sand arrived and stayed here a while. Trees grew and held the sand in place. So, too, did the people take root. Herders began farming, putting physical roots in the ground, like the trees. Then, the Fouta was a fertile place. A beautiful place. The rains brought seasons of plenty. The hot summers were shorter and not too hot to grow abundant vegetables along with staples such as sorghum, corn, and millet. The trees brought the people, enticed by the shade and fertile ground. The trees rooted the people to the earth.

The trees became useful to the inhabitants of the Fouta. The people used the wood from the trees for building, for cooking, for transport. Over the years, the trees have been chopped over and over. That which was once abundant has since ceased to be. With the cutting of trees, the sand storms began. Every year they increase, causing more erosion of topsoil (what little there was) and more dangers to humans caught in these storms. The more the trees are cut, the hotter the Fouta gets. Every year temps increase making living, farming, working, really everything less bearable.

The sand, no longer held by the roots of these trees, is leaving; taking with it people. Those smartest and hardest working are leaving to find better opportunities. Better living conditions. The culture of the Fouta is changing. The people are losing their culture. Losing their ties to the earth. More and more of their money comes from abroad. Less and less can be provided by agriculture, due to heat and lack of rain. The youth are adapting Western culture, Western dress. There are still cultural celebrations, but they become lessened and overshadowed by the desire to ‘be like the Americans/French’. As the trees continue to decrease, so does the esteem and appreciation of the culture, the roots.

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Without trees, the Fouta has no life; no culture; no people. It is trees that provide the stability of life. It is deforestation that is causing this gradual loss.

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The Other Side of Islam

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

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

This piece is specifically from my view; from my specific experience here in my village of Mbolo Aly Sidy, Dept Podor, Region San Louis, Senegal, West Africa. My view is based on what I have seen and how I have experienced the surrounding culture of which I live. I do not claim that it has any weight anywhere other than outside of my personal experience. I also do not claim to know very much about Islam and please forgive me for any slight misinterpretations or gaps of knowledge. I am reporting everything as honestly and accurately as I have experienced them.

Batane munal fof ko alhamdullilahi – the future of every patience is thanks to God.

If an American student were to be asked to name a pertinent Muslim, they would probably name Osama Bin Ladin, maybe Sadam Hussein, Mouammar Kadhafi, or Jihadi John. These are the ones we see on TV, they are the only Muslim faces and names that are shown to us and without further research into the religion they would be all that we know. This is a terribly one-sided story, however. What do these people have in common? They are misconstruing Islam and the Qur’an. They are using their power, in the name of Allah, to push an understanding of Islam that is not supported by Islamic scholars. The majority of Muslims do not consider these people as practicing in the correct way in which the Qur’an teaches. A piece of literature by some of the most prolific Islamic scholars, (http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com/Open Letter. identifies how, in many ways, these dictators and terror groups have violated some of the deepest teachings and practices of Islam, going against what most Muslims know to be correct. The Islam that we Americans see in the media is an Islam of violence, of hate, and misunderstanding, but the Islam that I have experienced for the past year has been one of peace, love, and generosity.

“Avoid conversations about religioun. Avoid conversations about politics,” said Peace Corps Administration. This seemed like a valid and simple suggestion, as religion and politics are topics I rarely discussed and previously felt I have very little standing to take sides in. However, religion and politics in Senegal (especially Northern Senegal) are so tightly intertwined with daily life that they have become one in the same. Avoiding discussing these things is avoiding daily life: impossible.

Ada julat?’ (Do you pray?) They ask. Answering this is not simple for me. It is hard to say that I was raised Christian, but if I were to define my faith, I would claim Christianity. Religion to us is such a personal matter. It is something that we know or meditate on inside of ourselves, and we know personally where we stand whether or not we openly admit or discuss our beliefs (or lack of). Here, however, I have been forced to look deeper inside of myself to define, in Pulaar, my religious identity. Do I pray? I answer “Yes, I pray like the Christians pray.” This is often quite confusing because typically the view is that Christians don’t pray, or pray much too infrequently (compared to the five times a day prayers of every dutiful Muslim, an opinion which I cannot at all argue). They often then ask for me to recite ‘our’ prayers, which is where I stumble. Should I recite the Hail Mary? Our Father? Or should I say a prayer that I might say in my head? In the end, it all would be English and therefore incomprehensible for the most part. I explain that ‘our’ prayers are not necessarily recited but more of a dialogue with Allah (or God – same thing). They then ask how he responds. Difficulties arise also when the public schools take time off for ‘our’ holidays such as Ascension, which I know nothing about, or when asked why I am not fasting during lent. They’ve got a point: I am ignorant to my own religion, let alone theirs.

Even though religion is a personal matter to those of us in our American culture, the Christian teachings still push us to worship together in a communal place at least once a week. This could really simply be seen as a less extreme form of the Islamic teachings of communal worship. Islamic prayers are done five times a day, if possible, in a communal area, in solidarity and usually in unison. This is obviously speaking specifically from a predominantly Muslim country where public prayers are commonplace and expected. The location is irrelevant; you pray where you are/can.

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

Side story: I was in a night bus to Dakar and sunset was falling as we drove across the Fouta towards the capitol. We had stopped at one village for longer than seemed necessary and there seemed to be nothing happening, so one man decided to take the opportunity to get out of the bus to pray his evening prayers. He washed his hands, arms, feet, and head and proceeded to pray outside of a closed-up boutique. The bus, on it’s own agenda of course, began to pull out of it’s stop. The man, deep in his prayers, did not at all react, his attention fully upon his meditations. The passengers on the bus, however, all came to his defense and every single one of them was up in arms shouting as soon as the bus began to move. The bus of course stopped and waited for him to finish his prayers, and the passengers began to joke about him. “Oh, he who is praying there? He must be a Ba (last name).” Upon which all of the Diallo’s (joking cousin of the Ba’s) agreed. The Ba’s, however, had different rationalizations. Then the Sy’s/Sow’s/Ly’s/Thiams got into it, placing their own bets against each other until finally the man got back on the bus, his prayers and meditations complete, to the entire bus interrogating him about his last name. He was a Niang. Everybody was disappointed about the lack of ability to tease him about that as well as for making everybody wait for him, but no one was mad. Prayers are acceptable and expected anywhere, anytime.

The communal focus on prayers goes further than that; the communal focus extends to life. Life is better if it is shared with others. Houses are large with many family members. Boys in the family have designated rooms or sometimes houses of their own within compounds where their eventual wives move into to live with their family (hope you like the in-laws!). Everyone eats together and if there are ever guests or even passers-by, they are invited and included as well. Food, no matter how much of it is available, is always better when shared, and there is almost always more than enough to go around. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the culture – sharing. It is assured that no one is ever in need; no one is lacking something that another may have in excess.

Sharing, in the Islamic context, goes farther than just sharing between families, friends, etc. It extends to giving. Giving to the poor and needy is not just important, but one of the 5 pillars of Islam. The needy, it is said, are obvious. The ones truly in need (those not looking to do bad things or buy drugs with what they are given, etc.) are apparent. There is also a group called Talibe, or students, who begin as young boys, sometimes as young as 4 and 5 years old. They are sent to a Koranic school with an imam, or teacher/professor of the Qua’ran who they live with and learn from for sometimes many years until they either leave or master the Quran. These boys, to learn humility, are sent to beg for alms and sometimes for their meals. This is all very dependent on the conditions of the Dara, or school, and the imam himself. These boys, as seen through the eyes of a Westerner (aka me) seem at first to be a huge problem! A human rights issue! From our eyes it seems horrific that these children would be sent, shoeless, penniless and dirty, out on the streets of often busy, dangerous cities to beg for their breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and alms to bring back to their Maribou/imam. These boys, however, play a large part in the religion and are an important part of the community. They provide an outlet for alms. I have even found myself looking for them at times when I have leftover bread or food that I don’t want, I find myself thinking, “ok, where is a Talibe, I need to give this to them.”

An important Chierno comes to visit our house

An important Chierno comes to visit our house

I realized that religion was something I could have real meaningful discussions about, openly and honestly. My first eye-opening conversation was one I had quite some time ago, when my language skills were not great. A Chierno, or Islamic Imam, came to our house and stayed as a guest. He was a friend of my host father’s and very well educated in the teachings of Islam. I was very intimidated speaking with him. I knew there were similarities between our religions so I ventured to ask him to explain them. I realized that asking questions is not offensive; quite the opposite. I asked him so many questions; we ended up some of the last few awake that night, discussing our religions with complete mutual respect. By admitting my complete lack of knowledge about religion, I have been able to learn so much by being open and nonjudgmental. By humbling myself to the level of a student, or Talibe, I have been able to have so many interesting conversations and gained so much respect though my increasing levels of understanding.

The culture of Islam in Senegal is that of peace. It is that of love. It is that of solidarity. I have found it thousands of times more accepting and inclusive than any culture I have ever experienced (in my limited experiences). I feel accepted, included, and well-fed at all times in this culture. I have yet to see a fight get violent, yet to see anyone get beat or maimed, yet to feel completely disrespected as a woman.

Our local Chierno (left) Samba and my good friend and Pulaar teacher Abda Anne on the right.

Our local Chierno (left) Samba and my good friend and Pulaar teacher Abda Anne on the right.

Barki’Allah

This is a culture of peace.

Jam tan, santé Allah

Dakar-Fuuta

The Dakar-Fuuta Bus

Busses run from Dakar to Ourossogui along the Fuuta route all day every day.  Most leave their starting points at 4am

Busses run from Dakar to Ourossogui along the Fuuta route all day every day. Most leave their starting points at 4am

The alarm goes off, a chanting/singing noise. Abou rolls over, grabbing his phone and turning off the alarm. He checks the time – 4am. His brother has already left, his bus leaving Sedo around 3am. He is long gone. Abou turns on the light, his wife already awake from the alarm, she rolls over on her mattress on the floor, careful not to wake her week old baby. They must not sleep in the same bed together because she has so recently given birth. This is how it is. He steps outside to wash his face, hands, and feet before praying. Changing his pants and adding a light jacket, he gathers his overnight bag and cell phone, kissing his wife, who is now sitting up, back resting against the foot of the wooden bed frame, gently on her cheek.

Abou and his wife Mettu, dressed up on a Friday afternoon

Abou and his wife Mettu, dressed up on a Friday afternoon

Mettu and her baby at the naming ceremony one week after his birth.  This is their third boy

Mettu and her baby at the naming ceremony one week after his birth. This is their third boy

Mettu and her baby at the naming ceremony one week after his birth.  This is their third boy

Mettu and her baby at the naming ceremony one week after his birth. This is their third boy

Using his cell phone’s weak flashlight, he heads down the dark hallway and out the front door. He walks around the block to where his and his brother’s busses sit, now only his left glowering hauntingly in the dark of the early morning. A streetlight a few blocks away casts strange shadows through the electrical lines and tree branches. There is some movement around his bus as he walks towards it; his apprentices have beaten him to the bus. Front door open, they begin to turn on the bus, its ignition struggling as it chugs and spurts to life. Two people arrive from the shadows of the village, huddled in scarves, one carrying a baby, the other, their baggage. Quick greetings are exchanged and they board the bus, choosing seats close to the front, the one with the baby leans her head against the window and closes her eyes, the other fingers her prayer beads, mumbling silent prayers. 5:10am and no one else seems to be showing up, Abou boards the bus and starts shifting it into gear, the bus rumbling. The apprentices board the bus through the front and back door, taking seats wherever they feel. The bus rolls sleepily out of the narrow winding sand alleyways of the village and through the desert emptiness until they come to the main road. The bus slows to mount the concrete road, raised a bit from the sand. The bus leans dangerously to one side as the bus aims diagonally onto the road, no other cars around for miles. Abou shifts it into gear and off they race, towards Dakar… a whole day’s trip away.

The bus charges forward between villages, but most villages result in stops- people flagging down the bus. No way to know which extended arm wants to flag the bus to take all the way to Dakar or instead just to the next village, which results in many stops and the apprentices yelling out the doors to the waiting crowds, “Fo jemm?/To paa daa?” (Where are you going – Wolof/Pulaar) The waiting party proceeds to yell towards the bus as it may or may not proceed to a stop, sometimes speeding right back up again without even correctly hearing where the person was going. When a stop is made for someone possibly traveling farther than the next village over, the bus slows and the apprentices jump out of the front and back doors, jogging along side the bus towards the waiting party. They confirm where they are headed and whether or not they have baggage. Fares are shouted back and forth until one gives in and stops arguing. The luggage, if large, is then shuffled, hand-over-hand, to the apprentice waiting on top. It is settled in among other packages, rice sacks of dried fish, goats with their legs all lashed together, a sheep packed completely into a rice sack, braying depletedly.

Windshield of a mini car, not Abou's bus, but similar issue here

Windshield of a mini car, not Abou’s bus, but similar issue here

Inside the bus, there are curtains on almost every window, held by rope lining the windows. These curtains flow in the breeze as the bus flies along the bumpy road, one passenger ties the curtains into balls so as to stop them from batting him in the face as he leans his head against the window, trying to sleep. Posters of Chiernos (Imams – religious teachers of the Koraan) are taped up to the plastic barrier behind the driver’s seat and the beginning of passenger seating. Faces of large men with long chains around their necks – photos of other large men hanging on them, the posters bordered with decals, photoshopped with backgrounds of multiple famous mosques (all in different countries) or computerized beach scenes. Next to the posters hangs a plastic hand-woven loofah, a small bar of soap lodged inside – just in case the opportunity to bathe presents itself along the way. No one should ever be caught without their soap and loofah. On the stick shift hangs an old tiny beat-up baby shoe for good luck; wiggling every so slightly every time Abou shifts into second gear. The bus hits a pothole on the right side and the automatic door engages- just one half – opening as if triggered. The apprentice standing in the doorway shoves it closed again, but instead triggers the other half door which then springs to life, almost smacking him in the face. The bus tilts back the other way and that door too then slams back into place. Through the ‘automatic’ doors, you can just barely see the rear-view mirror, which is lashed onto it’s post with red twine, facing exactly the opposite direction. But it’s on, at least. There is no real need for that mirror, however, for that is why Abou has so many apprentices – standing in the doorways, ready with the tap of their silver ring against the metal siding and shouts of ‘Hey! Eh! Eh!’ to communicate when to stop or go to Abou. The front window just barely being held together by clear packaging tape. A sound, which had been first interpreted as electronic squeaking or creaking of the structure or gears of the bus itself has been emerging instead of from below the bus, but from above the heads of the passengers. 4 crates, with small holes along the sides sit on the left luggage rack inside the bus. The movement inside them becomes evident, the noise not letting up when the bus stops – birds! The sound of their chirping sounding astoundingly similar to the electronic sound emitted underground of the San Francisco cable car. Prayer beads and a pair of sunglasses dangle from inside the central rear view mirror – this one quite functional.

Stop in Oro Fonde for the morning prayer. Stop in Aire Lao for lunch. Pulling into the gas station, Abou rolls slowly waiting for the worker to signal to him which station is functional. The worker doesn’t gesture right or left because, as he soon finds out, the electricity is out. The worker goes inside, picks up a yellow oil bidon and comes out, grabbing a half cut off 1.5 liter soda bottle with a piece of hose attached and walks towards the bus. Never turning off the engine, the oil is emptied into the tank, money exchanged, and the bus is back on the road. Stop in Richard Toll for the afternoon prayer. Arrive to Dakar around sunset, just in time for the sunset prayer. Dakar, being so large, people are let off long before the garage, leaving only a few left in the empty seats upon arrival to the garage. The apprentices unload what’s left of the baggage and people, sweeping out the trash on the floor. The bus, now devoid of people, looks like a bomb has gone off in it – trash strewn all about the floor, a layer of dirt, grime, grease, and plastic water sachets stuck to the ground amidst mandarin peels, banana peels – already black, a child’s shoe left behind, half a bag of peanuts spilling on the floor, sticky plastic bags that had held popsicles, etc. The apprentices sweep what they can, the layer of grime left to collect whatever passes over them.

Dashboard of a car

Dashboard of a car

Abou picks a few seats, sprawls across them, and takes a nap. The apprentices all do the same; the hustle and bustle of the garage not phasing them in the slightest. Dinner, hanging out, catching up with friends, drinking ataaya commence at a nearby house – relatives of Abou. They stay up late into the night, drinking shot glass after shot glass of ataaya, people coming and going. After a few hours of sleep, 4am alarm goes off and Abou and his crew shuffle through the streetlight glow back to the bus in the outskirts of the garage. Dakar, surprisingly busy at all hours, is alive, movement in the darkness resembles ghostly dream creatures sneaking around quietly behind walls, around steel canisters, walking in and out of doorways, shrouded in shadows.

People wait under the huge cement shade structure on the bench aligned between two bus spaces. Money is exchanged, tickets are ripped off, change exchanged, and a percentage haggled and given to the garage workers. Travel in Senegal is mostly about the liquidity of money. Money comes from the passengers, is then passed to the garage attendants, some given to each apprentice, filling up the gas tank a few liters at a time, some given to beggars and Talibe boys (young boys who study the Koraan and beg as a form of humility) and some used to buy food and water along the way. At the end of the day, not much money is made by anyone, but everyone involved in the process gets a share.

Leaving the garage, the next bus rolls into place

Leaving the garage, the next bus rolls into place

The bus takes off again, this time not entirely full, but baggage piled on top as high as the bus is tall. The 4 apprentices now all take up the entire front row, one of them sleeping across two seats, whole body swaddled in his thick coat. They roll through the darkness on their way back up to the Fuuta – back to Sedo, back to his wife, back to his newborn child, back to his other two sons, all just a day’s drive away, and yet on the other side of the country.

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Abou and I at the naming ceremony of his newborn son. His village only speaks Wolof so it sucks going there... Good thing he's worth visiting

Abou and I at the naming ceremony of his newborn son. His village only speaks Wolof so it sucks going there… Good thing he’s worth visiting

All Rapped Up in the Fouta

Fouta Tooro represent

 

Plant a tree

Grow a tree

Development is not for free

Plant a tree

Grow a tree

Forests don’t come easily

Change isn’t cheap

Positive change, forward change

We are here to learn and teach

Gandal fof, hay gotto jay                                                No one owns all the knowledge

Wachtu yoni do for freedom                                                Time is now here for freedom

The time is now for choice,

Sukkabe Fouta, heddo!                                                Children of the Fouta, listen up!

It’s time to use your voice

Speak up, speak out: this is the New Africa

The new Senegal, the new place for all

Place for all ideas, place for all discoveries

Acceptance of joni, kono memories of rawane               Acceptance of now, but memories of last year

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Knowledge is the base of development. If hip-hop is to be a force of change here in the Fouta or elsewhere in the world, it must also be based in knowledge. In responsible speech, in respectable/respectful speech. Words of encouragement, of hope and cause for change. As catchy as lyrics can be to sing of fights and gangs and disrespecting women, where does that bring the youth of today? Where does that put their priorities?

John Kelley (my site-mate) and I showed up in Lougue (nearby village) and entered a house. The house was blue, the floors pristine. They showed us into the blue sitting room and introduced us to Maxi Krezy, real name Amadou Aw. Sitting on the bright pink mats with a serene calm and long dreads, we proceeded to green him in Pulaar, sitting with him on his mat. We casually chatted with him and his friends in the room in our broken Pulaar until he began speaking to us in perfect English. English, being one of the 9 languages he speaks fluently and occasionally performs/writes songs in. These languages include Swedish, Greek, Spanish, Latin, French, and Wolof (national language of Senegal).

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Maxi Krezy, internationally known rapper, hip hop artist, youth activist. This man has passion, timing, and just straight rhythm.

Maxi and all the others in the room, mostly artists and some others involved in the concert event that day, all proceeded outside where the Eaux et Foret (governmental official in charge of trees and tree activities in each specific region) had arrived with a rice sack full of baby trees. We acquired shovels and picks from various locations, aware of the scene we must have made: a group of rappers and two Toubobs (Westerners) carrying shovels and trees, the women across the street selling veggies chatted and laughed at the spectacle.

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We planted about 20 trees; mostly eucalyptus and neem, by the road and inside the fence of an NGO-sponsored feed storage building. The whole time Obi, big black Tshirt, dorag on his head, sunglasses, lookin’ G, but holding his two baby eucalyptus tree sacks so tenderly, as if it were his one mission in life to keep these delicate living beings comfortable and safe.  

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Previously not intending on even staying for lunch, John and I were enjoying the company much too much to leave now. It was now apparent that we would be staying for the show that evening, so we made ourselves comfortable, and really, this was a crew I could feel completely comfortable and safe being myself with. We discussed issues of development and issues in Africa: wars, race issues, political unrest, poverty, women’s roles in society, switching between Pulaar, English, Wolof and French to include everyone in the room in the discussion or to make clarifications. It was so invigorating to have my passions and viewpoints affirmed and reflected by this population, so very different in background and lifestyle. I voiced my frustration with women in the country being content with getting married during high school and dropping out because they ‘don’t need it’ or are now ‘more necessary at home’. Hadi Niang, elementary school teacher in Thilambol (John Kelley’s village) who organized most of the event that day, agreed wholeheartedly about the issue and became energetic in discussing creating an upcoming event or project that could address this issue. Maxi Krezy and his boys were on board as well. We now may have a future performance in the Fouta featuring female rap artists and the voices and testimonies of women who are married or with children but have succeeded in continuing their education at the University or trade schools, coming soon Insh’Allah.

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Hadi Niang, lounging while discussing girls staying in school, photo by John Kelley

Evening approaching, we made our way to the event. The stage had been set up using a collection of blue metal or plastic barrels placed side-by-side and covered by a plastic sheet of what looked like linoleum, a black tarp hanging behind as backdrop. Lights and sound system set up on either side, and a shade structure had been mounted over a table. The table was long, with about 7 chairs. We walked through a sea of children, each insisting on shaking our hands as many times as possible, as we made our way to the Cherno’s (Koraanic teacher) house to present him with gifts: a brand new Koraan and 20 wooden tablets for the boys to transcribe the Koraan onto in black ink. The rappers sat with the Cherno and discussed the gifts and who knows what else for an extended amount of time, then they prayed and everyone in attendance held their hands out as if asking for an offering and whispered ‘Amin’ at key points in the dialogue. Prayer finished, everyone put their two hands to their face as if washing it with water and a final ‘Amin’ was echoed throughout the crowd.

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Now getting dark, we returned to the stage area. We were instructed to sit at the long table, which was then covered in a hand-embroidered white cloth and adorned with bouquets of glittery, colorful plastic flowers. We sat, two rappers, the Village Chief, Maxi Krezy, Sousprefier (regional mayor) then me and John. Hadi stood behind us and gave the warmest welcome I could have imagined. He spoke about the people who had come far for this event, from neighboring villages or as far away as Dakar. Then he gestured to John and I and said, “…but these two, these two came from America. They came all the way from America for you, all of you, for the Fouta. They came here, not asking or requiring anything. They just came.” He described the role of Peace Corps volunteers and highlighted the work that we have been doing in our communities. He was so complimentary and generous in his description it made me blush, worried how I would ever live up to his expectations in my two years here, but honored by his hope and trust in me, inspired to work up to it. The Sousprefier spoke, mostly in French so I’m not really sure what he talked about, but I know there were references to us and to Peace Corps and our work here. Maxi spoke about hip-hop and its role in development and positive focus on education and knowledge. Then John Kelley made a speech in Pulaar, describing the three goals of Peace Corps: working with host country nationals learning and teaching with them, the sharing of American culture with Senegalese, and the sharing of Senegalese culture with friends and family back home. He ended it with, “Jungo e jungo, ennen mbowi yahde yesso.” Hand in hand, together we will go forward. The crowd erupted for the first time with that amount of enthusiasm. The conference then continued with a question and answer session with Maxi about the history and background of hip-hop in America and now Senegal, and about how they, too can become rappers with the affect and influence that Maxi has achieved. He discussed the meaning of ‘gangster’ and his focus on bringing hip-hop out of the violence-ridden streets of the Bronx and into a new light and purpose by using knowledge and education to create lyrics with meaning and action.

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And so began the 48 hours of Hip-Hop in the Fouta. The next day much the same as the first, except this time incorporating sensitization and education about health, sanitation and malaria in the village of Thilogne during the day, as well as a community-wide trash clean up. This conference became more focused on hip-hop and it’s history and role in society today as the crowd was made up of many hopeful future rap artists.

Moving away from drugs, from violence, from hatred, hip-hop can be an act of change; an act of the New Africa. The Africa hungry for development, hungry for the culture of change, hungry for knowledge and success. Ready with the open arms of a performer on stage, the light of hope shining on his face, eyes closed imagining the possibilities.

The youth of the Fouta are the hope for the Fouta.  

 

 

Joni ko jonie, hanki woni hanki                        Now is now, yesterday was yesterday

Jungo e jungo, ennen mbowi yahde yesso            Hand in hand, together we can go forward

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