Tag Archives: Senegal

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.)

 

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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Min Jehii Wallo Jubboyde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

2015-07-24 20.13.02

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