Saturday, July 31, 2010

Nanga Def? Senegal continued.

We have begun to settle into a routine; Idy's wife and two young children have moved in for the duration, taking the room across the hall where the Polish sisters were sleeping.   Idy announces this change in living arrangements as casually if he were telling me where to buy bottled water: "Fina and the kids are coming to stay here, so K and A will be moving in with you."  At this point these little invasions of privacy feel normal, and it suits me fine as I haven't been sleeping well, mostly because at night I sleep alone in a room that faces the cement front yard of the building.  There's an iron gate separating the property from the street, and if it's not closed properly the wind whips it open and closed all night long, the sound of metal-on-metal making its way into my dreams.

The Polish sisters slide their mattresses across the hall into my room, and I consolidate my clothing onto a single shelf of the closet to make room for their clothes.  Across the hall a queen-sized mattress is brought up from the living room, where Idy had been sleeping alone, and Fina tacks a swatch of fabric up on the windows, instantly transforming the vibe from temporary residence into the most beautiful room in the house.  In her enormous trunk she has packed a seemingly limitless supply of dresses, each more beautiful than the next, and changes clothes several times a day.  Also in her trunk is a supply of hair and beauty products: when we get changed to go out at night I slip into a clean t-shirt and the only skirt I packed, and apply a layer of Burt's Bees lip shimmer; Fina pulls her hair back into a bun and attaches a false ponytail, colors her eyebrows with dark pencil, puts on lipstick, hoop earrings, and changes into a new dress.  She hangs onto the crook of my elbow as we make our way to a club a few blocks away, shifts to put her arm around my shoulder, and I feel the heat of her body radiating out from her armpit.  She is 27 years old to Idy's 45, and the mother of two.  Their marriage was arranged, as is the custom in Senegal.  She was born on the island of Cape Verde, where she was raised Christian and spoke Portuguese.  She has since learned French and Wolof, converted to Islam, and is trying to learn English.  "See you later," she says to me, by way of practice.

Her wide forehead and caramel skin remind me of the singer Sade, and spending time with her makes me feel like I'm 18 years old.  She tells naughty jokes about men who practice polygamy (including what she'd do to Idy if he ever took a second wife), sneaks sips from my beer when no one is looking (which is only available in clubs, as far as I can tell.  I haven't seen beer, wine, or liquor of any kind in any stores), and has a laugh as loud and instantaneous as a bike horn.   In the living room she braids her daughter's hair, and then does the same to S and K.  I shy away from it, self-conscious about my fine hair and what it would look like if Fina tried to braid it in corn rows.  I imagine I would look like a cross between Bo Derek in "10" and the guy with all the pins in his head from "Hellraiser."

Mustafah is intent on teaching us Wolof, every chance he gets he drills us with new words and verb conjugations.  Foy dem means where are you going, mangi dem means I'm going, funyou dem means where are we going.  I write down a list of words in a notebook, and try to memorize them:

Nanga def - how are you
Mangi firek - I'm fine
Jaru jef - thank you
Nokobo - you're welcome
Dem - verb, "to go"
Mangi dem - I'm going
Bosuba - until tomorrow
Ba banenyo - until next time
Djin - fish
Cani - spicy fish
Yassa - a spicy fish dish, one of Fina's signature dishes
Thieboudienne - a dish made from fish, rice, and tomato sauce
Mafe - stew
No to do - what's your name
Mangi to do - my name is
Kai nyu dem - let's go
Fetch - dance
Nechna - good (food)
Safna - delicious
Safool - not good
Rafetna - you're pretty
Buguna - I like
Lek - eating
Neerna - good
Nan - drink
Balma - please
Maima - give me
Ndoch - water

Idy's six year old son, Ibou (Idy calls him "Ma-Ibou" to differentiate between his son and nephew of the same name) and three year old daughter, Mamie, indulge in the attentions and affections of the household.  One evening E and I find ourselves at home alone with them, and they command our attention, taking us by the hand or saying "Hola! Hola!" until we watch them perform tricks - somersaults and cartwheels, and I understand through context that "hola!" means "look!"  Ma-Ibou pats my shoulder to get my attention and begins singing a song: "Buppolo solda," he begins, then improvises the sound of percussion: "gingee dek, gingee dek..."  I recognize the tempo and the beat, and in a couple minutes realize I've heard this song before -- he's singing Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier.  "Buffalo soldier," I begin to sing.  We make eye contact and I continue, he joins me on the vocalized percussion. "Gingee dek, gingee dek," we say together.  "Dreadlock Rasta.  There was a Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America..." 

Children are a fully integrated feature of life; two young girls cross the street and in the process get in the way of a motorcyclist, who weaves between them.  The older girl slaps the younger one across the cheek as some kind of punishment.  Idy and Mustafah don't hesitate to involve themselves, telling the girl who slapped not to treat her sister that way.  Another time, Idy stops a young child who is carrying a rock in his hand, and tells him to put it down.  "This one wanted to throw the rock to that one," he explains, and then laughs.  I've never seen adults take charge of children they aren't directly connected to, it makes me wonder how many of Idy's nephews are actually related to him by blood.  Perhaps Uncle is an honorary title for any adult male; I make a mental note to look into it.

The schedule is beyond relaxed; sometimes we don't eat dinner until after 10pm.  There is a lot of waiting involved in everything we do, and it extends into the outer world.  At the post office I wait for half an hour as a clerk turns the loose-leaf pages of a book of stamps, and I end up bringing the postcards that I'd meant to mail back home with me because there are no mailboxes in Dakar, if I want to mail something I have to go back to the post office, and that takes up too much time.  We learn to eat as much as possible at breakfast, because there's no telling when lunch will be.  Nothing works the way I expect it to - trying to contact people via cellphone is beyond frustrating.  I buy phone cards at the corner store where we buy bottled water by the six pack (we can't drink the water here, not even to brush our teeth), and it takes an entire phone card to figure out how to dial out properly.  When I do manage to get through to Chicago to talk to M, or other parts of Dakar to contact my old French teacher Abdou, who taught at the Alliance Française de Chicago until a few years ago, or my cousin Emilie's friend Ndeye, the connection is never reliable.  Calls get dropped mid-sentence, and phone batteries die quickly.  "Batteries don't last in Africa," Idy says, by way of explanation.  Suddenly the word "inshallah," spoken by everyone we come into contact with, makes sense.  It translates as "if God wills it," and people use it at the end of any sentence that has to do with the future, for example: we'll see you tomorrow, if God wills it.  Without a fully functioning infrastructure, anything and everything will happen if, and only if, you're lucky enough not to get stopped by some kind of obstacle.

E-mail is just as difficult as cellphones; we locate an Internet cafe, where for the equivalent of 50 cents I get 90 minutes of time, but the keyboard is incomprehensible.  It takes me half an hour to compose the following email to M:  

Subject:holy crap this is a messed up keyboard!

Im at a cybercafe and this keyboard is driving me cra< key:   Heres how it looks if I touch type:

Iù, qt q cybercqfe qnd this keyboqrd is driving ,e crqwy; 
for instance theres no < key:

No end to the chellenges I tell you; but having an a,a

at first it seemed scary to the eye because the dilapidated appearance of the city would be a signal of danger in the states; but its not the same here; theres just not very good infrastructure:  Idys entourage is always with us in one form or another; and one of them always sleeps on the couch by the front door which felt strange at first; but Idy is just looking out for us:  Were learning to eat west african style sharing a big bowl and eating without utensils using only the right hand, you would probably have gone without meals for the duration.  Im sure its just as entertaining for the guides to watch us try to figure out how to eat this way as it is for us:  They;re all very friendly and are constantly trying to teach us Wolof; heres what I can say: nanga def; it means how are you:  also wow means yes:

very hard to find internet and to type heres where I would type a question mark if I could find it:

saw some really cool drumming today and dancing; to,orrow we have our first dance class: 

miss you and love you,

Idy's entourage really did protect us; on New Year's Eve I get freaked out by all the firecrackers being set off in the Place De L'Indépendance.  They're being thrown everywhere, and I realize that we are surrounded by a mass of humanity, five women in a sea of men, some of them purposely throwing firecrackers near feet so that people jump.  I'd gotten singed by one a few days earlier -- it had ricocheted off the ground, exploded near my ear, and grazed me, so my tolerance for pyrotechnics had already dissipated.  "I want to get out of here," I say, feeling the wall of men close in on me.  Ibou takes me by the hand and walks me back home, talking to me the whole way to keep me calm.  "Don't worry," he says, "lots of people don't like firecrackers."  When I get home Fina is there, and she corroborates.  "I hate firecrackers," she says, "I never go out on New Year's Eve."

Having Idy's family in the house creates a sense of intimacy that I wasn't expecting, and makes me feel a bit like a voyeur.  A week into our stay three more guests arrive from Chicago and take over the room they had been staying in, sending them back downstairs to the living room with the queen-sized mattress.  I come home one night to find them asleep, Idy shirtless and sleeping on his side, his arm around Fina.  I tiptoe up the stairs to my room, not wanting to disturb them.  Late one afternoon Fina gives Mamie a bath in the courtyard, and the little girl comes indoors wearing nothing but a towel.  On another occasion I come downstairs to find Idy kneeling on a prayer rug, facing Mecca.  These are intimate family moments I never expected to see, and it makes me reflect on my own family.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Every moment of every day is an assault on my senses - Senegal continued

Every moment of every day is an assault on my senses.  I feel like a child, I want to stop and look and ask questions about everything I see or smell or taste or hear.  There are moments that feel incongruous to me - Malal's cell phone ring tone is the break from 50 Cent's In Da Club, Ibou wears a knit cap when its 60 degrees outside because he feels cold, and out of the blue he says "what's up girl?" to practice his English.

There is no sense of privacy or personal property anywhere - Mustafah asks me what I'm drinking one morning, and when I tell him it's English Breakfast tea that I brought with me he picks up my mug without asking and takes a sip.  Then he takes my copy of The New Yorker and tries to read it.  "Université," he says upon landing on an advertisement for Columbia.  One evening I retreat to my room when Idy's wife, Fina, knocks on the door and asks me what I'm up to.  I tell her I'm reading a book and she hands me a bowl of vegetables and a dull knife.  After discussing Barak Obama with Ibou, I show him the photo of me and M in Chicago on election night that I have stored on my cell phone.  He takes the phone from me and starts playing with the buttons to see what other features it has.  Idy's three year old daughter, Mamie, who speaks only Wolof, walks into my room and makes a beeline for my contact lens case, picks it up and begins unscrewing one of the caps off.  I redirect her attention and bring her downstairs to find something else to play with.   These are all bizarre behaviors to me, but I grow accustomed to it.

Outside of the house the world is crowded and amazing, and our group of very white women accompanied by very black men is a constant source of attention.  There aren't many tourists in this part of town; the times we come into contact with other white people are remarkable in their scarcity.  We see a white couple on Avenue Léopold Senghor, prompting K to remark - in her Polish accent, "I forget I am white here."  We see the highest numbers of white people on Ngor Island, a tourist trap accessible only by boat that is covered in beach resorts and vendors who follow us, relentlessly hawking their wares.  They walk next to me with baskets on their heads, and sit with me when I stop to rest, bringing their baskets into their laps and pressing plastic jewelry into my hands.  I would buy some for my young nieces, but I know that opening my wallet here would be like scattering breadcrumbs in an aviary.  It is something I never get used to.

On the street near the house a young boy runs up to me, points his finger and yells "toubab!"  Idy tells me that this means "white person," and that it's not pejorative, the boy is simply saying out loud what he has just seen.  I do my best to accept my status as an obvious outsider; it would take months of living here before I came to be seen as a regular.

On the main drag of the city center there is much to be seen:  fruit vendors selling oranges that have been peeled to the pith with a knife, leaving marks that make them look like onions; paper cones of roasted peanuts; coconuts that have been cut in half.  The food vendors are the quietest salesmen we encounter.  Elsewhere the salesmen become a dense chattering mass, as when Ibou takes me to the currency exchange half a mile from the house.  He weaves through the crowds effortlessly, and I struggle to keep up.  I feel a hundred pairs of eyes on me as we enter a small building squeezed into the middle of an overcrowded block.  I hand Ibou $75, he speaks to a man standing behind an old timey cashier's window and gets 40,000 CFA in return.  Outside the building men walk close to moving cars while holding up cardboard display boards covered in cheap sunglasses, and my sense of being watched by pairs of unseen eyes intensifies.  I am overwhelmed by the density of foot, auto, and bike traffic, and Ibou takes me by the hand and leads me out of the crowds and onto the quieter streets near the house.

There are other things in the streets: garbage, curls of feces, men facing the wall using the street as an open urinal.  On a wall in three foot spray-painted letters is the phrase: "defense de pisser sur le mur" - "no pissing on the wall".  I think about this every time I re-enter the house, and wash my feet and hands.  There are goats, sometimes whole herds of them; women sitting by the side of the road doing laundry and nursing babies; one woman holds a cell phone to her ear as she squats on the ground, an infant suckling at one breast, the other naked and visible to all who walk past her - the very image of the first and third worlds colliding.  Children play in the street, and are carried on the backs of their mothers, who cleverly wrap them onto their bodies with colored cloth that matches their head wraps.   Chadit, our dance teacher while we are here, unfurls a breast and begins nursing her infant son in the middle of a lesson.  She demonstrates the dance moves with the baby latched onto her.  When she and Malal come to the house for dinner, they bring their three children with them, and when they become tired they fall asleep wherever they are, no sounds of adult conversation or laughter can rouse them.

The electricity cuts out in the neighborhood and Chadit and Fina finish cooking by the light of a miniature flashlight that I have attached to a key chain, and hook onto a nail in the corner of the impossibly small kitchen where Fina prepares three meals a day with help from the two young sisters who've been hired to help with housework.  The thin sisters walk through the house, wordless shadows among us, bending in half to throw wet rags onto the floor and walking backwards as they mop, their bodies inverted Vs.  I try to speak a few words of Wolof to them: "Jer-e-jeff," I stammer, trying to remember the word for "thank you."

The electricity is still out by the time dinner is ready and we eat by candlelight, seated on the floor in West African fashion, using only our right hands to scoop handfuls of food from communal plates.  There is a method to eating this way, the first night that we ate together a great show was made of demonstrating the proper technique of grasping a handful of rice with a bit of fish or vegetable inside it, squeezing it repeatedly until it holds together, and popping it into our mouths.  We were sloppy eaters at first, but have begun to get the hang of it.  The food is amazing - every day Fina goes to the market by the ocean and buys fish that's been caught in canoes earlier that day, then scaled and gutted by women who hold cigarillos tightly in the corners of their mouths as they pound away at their work.

When dinner is finished we sit in a circle as Ibou prepares attaya from gunpowder tea in an elaborate process that involves pouring it from a small kettle into an even smaller glass cup, holding them as far from each other as possible to produce foam.  The tradition is to drink three cups, and I oblige.  Ibou demonstrates the proper method of drinking attaya, holding the rim of the glass cup to the edge of his lips and sucking loudly to pull the tea up through the foam.  The loud sucking noise is a central part of the ceremony.  I mimic him, resulting in a great sputtering of gasps and coughs, which produces much laughter from the locals.  Among us, we speak several languages, and we begin a round of tongue twisters: E teaches "how much wood would a woodchuck chuck" in English; K teaches a Polish twister that sounds like "karo kara karope"; and Fina teaches one in Wolof.  The electricity returns at 1:20am, just as we are preparing for bed.

In my room, filled with three cups of gunpowder tea, I am unable to sleep.  I toss and turn, every sound setting off the nerve endings in my ears, until I give up and get out of bed.  Across the hall I can hear the Polish sisters chatting, and knock on their door.  I tell them I can't sleep, and they invite me into their room and offer me Polish candy, which I accept greedily - I haven't seen candy since my arrival.  K shows me pictures on her camera that she took in Poland just before coming here, they show snowy scenes of an impossibly pristine and quaint old world, and despite the wonders of this place my heart yearns to be somewhere that looks as familiar as Poland looks to me now.

More Senegal - sorry for the delay, thanks for your patience!

When I wake again, it's to the sounds of people yelling excitedly. I get out of bed and look out my window.  Across from the house, on the other side of a parking lot and a couple of dumpsters, is a wide, dusty soccer field.  Spectators sit on a concrete barrier watching two teams play, red dust following the players everywhere they go.  I look at my watch - it is 9:30am.  I cross the hall to the bathroom with my towel and toiletries.  There is no shower curtain in the tub, and only cold water comes from a fixture that looks like an old fashioned phone receiver, and rests in the tub on a handle.  I squat in the tub and hold the receiver above my head, and cold water runs over me.  The toilet has no tank attached to it, a bucket sits next to it for flushing.  After a brief shower I towel off and dress, and go back into my room; I am the only one awake in the house.

Last night I barely put my bags down when it was suddenly time to leave the house again, though it was already close to midnight.  "We were waiting for you," E says to me.  "Okay, um, let me just rinse my armpits and wash my face," I said.

We split into two groups, K and A in Mustafah's car; E, S and I in a cab with Malal.  I haven't eaten yet, so we stop at a late night restaurant on the corner of a dusty street that serves kebab sandwiches and canned bissap, a drink I'd read about in my guidebook that's made from hibiscus flowers and sugar.  I don't have West African Francs yet, so E spots me some cash.  I devour the kebab, and pass the bissap around for E and S to taste.  The cab takes us down darkened streets to a club called Just 4U that has a small stage and outdoor seating.  Mustafah and Malal collect our cover charges and pay the man at the entrance, and we make our way to an open table.  The instant I walk into the club I feel underdressed; all around me women are wearing outrageous clothing, their hair and faces done up, their feet delicately held by impossibly chic sandals.  On stage there's a singer, a man playing electric guitar, and two drummers - one playing a djembe, the other playing a tama whose notes grow higher when the percussionist squeezes it under his arm.  He plays it rapid fire, his fingers moving like bees.  A small group has gathered around the stage to dance.  Someone is wearing a t-shirt with the words "Fuck Pink" in sparkling letters, and on the wall behind the bar is a larger than life, painted portrait of Stevie Wonder; mouth agape, dark glasses, hair in beads. 

Malal orders a Gazelle beer for me, and then asks me how it tastes - he doesn't drink.  It's not the best beer I've ever had, but I like the label, and it's bottled in Dakar.  E and S have been here for a couple days, and are used to the time change.  They get up and start dancing near our table, drawing stares.  K and A arrived earlier today from Poland, and though they are travel weary, they join in the fray.  I'm in a daze, I sit with Malal and Mustafah and take in my surroundings.  "I'm in Africa," I tell myself.  I scan the club and feel a presence above me, look up, and realize I'm sitting directly beneath a palm tree.  It's late December, and I'm wearing a skirt and t-shirt.

Back at the house I realize that my legs are covered in tiny red pinprick dots.  "You were bitten by mosquitoes," Malal tells me.  "Really?" I ask, idiotically.  I hadn't felt anything, and these don't look like mosquito bites to me - they are small, flat, and red.  In the morning they have become raised, and I'm thankful for the malaria pills that were prescribed to me by the male nurse at the travel clinic at Northwestern Hospital, where I received inoculations against polio, yellow fever, and typhoid.