Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Stars, Salutations, and Sacrificial Cows

Salaam Malekum. Before beginning, I just want to point out that this is the second entry being posted at this time. You’ll need to scroll down to read the first post, and then you can scroll back up to read this one.

Picking up where I left off previously, I’m going to share some of my memories from the four day village stay I enjoyed in the Sine-Saloum delta of Southwestern Senegal. We left early on Saturday, May 13th, crammed into an absolutely hilarious, bright orange car rapide, on top of which were piled suitcases, backpacks, about 100 liters of bottled water, and, of course, one surfboard. Inside the orange bus were eight students (including myself), two Americans who had lived in the village previously, a local guide, and the driver. As we bounced our way out of Dakar on potholed roads – the driver’s prayer mat repeatedly falling from the little shelf, decorated with marabout images, where it was stored – we couldn’t help but notice the change in scenery. Buildings and shanty towns gave way to open landscapes and the deserts of the Sahel – baobab trees, with their gnarled, crooked limbs stretching always outward, beginning to dot the terrain in all directions. Small villages occasionally popped up in the distance, and sometimes children herding animals or women fetching water waved to us from the side of the road. We began to realize that, though Dakar is no less genuinely “African,” what we were seeing now was the Africa that everyone imagines. And, if this realization hadn’t fully sunk in after four or five hours of driving through the heat, what happened next surely reminded everyone of just what it means to be traveling in Africa. Having finally reached the delta, we noticed that the pot-holed, paved road had now become a dirt road meandering across expansive salt flats and tidal plains. Apparently, our driver was in the mood for some adventure because he decided (for reasons we still haven’t been told) that the dry road ahead looked less promising than the two feet of standing water (carried in by the tides) to the side. Off we went, and, not surprisingly, we made it exactly halfway through the pool of water before becoming stuck. The driver then revved the tires for a few minutes just to make sure they were buried extra-deep in the mud. Once everyone had filed out the back, the other three guys and I put all our strength into pushing the bus out but, despite a cheering audience of ladies, had no luck. So, standing in the 100 degree heat with no shelter – not even a tree – anywhere in sight, our feet covered in mud, we were barely even phased by the scene (or was it a mirage?) which unfolded. Out of nowhere, what had to have been an entire village appeared on the road, walking directly towards us. Most of them standing a half foot taller than the guys in our group, they gave the bus one shove and, with a bit of hooting and hollering, had us out in a matter of seconds. Barely allowing us time to thank them, the villagers abruptly turned around and began walking home; we could only stare at one another and grin as we ourselves recommenced our journey, truly excited about the new and unpredictable version of Africa which lay ahead.

At last, we saw it: Palmarin – our home for the next four days. Located beside the ocean, just north of the delta’s extensive mangrove swamps, Palmarin is a small, traditional fishing village. Virtually everyone in the village is related, and everyone, of course, knows one another. Being a Serer (the third or fourth largest ethnicity in Senegal) village, Wolof is not the predominant language (though it, as well as French, is generally understood). Also, the village is divided nearly equally between Muslims and Christians; one of its greatest sources of pride is that its small mosque and church stand almost next to each other, and everyone coexists peacefully. As far as work, the villagers divide their energy among fishing, collecting salt from the salt flats, and preparing the fish to be shipped inland. When our giant orange bus pulled into the village, we were immediately surrounded by at least fifty children who looked at us with curiosity and whispered to each other and giggled. One little boy got up the courage to come shake my hand, and, after I introduced myself and showed him my surfboard, the ice had been broken. Little Ousmane ran ahead of me, balancing the surfboard on his head, motioning to me to hurry as he led me to my new homestay at the residence of Abdoulaye Sarr and his family. Abdoulaye was immediately welcoming, and we were soon lost in a great conversation. Though he spoke no English, we got along quite well in French and had very few communication problems. The language element of the village homestay actually turned out to be one of the most rewarding for me because I was forced to speak literally nothing but French. In Dakar I’m around the other W&L students (most of whom don’t speak French) so often that I find it very difficult to maintain a French-speaking mindset. The constant switching back and forth really hinders my language uptake, as does my Dakar family’s frequent use of Wolof at home. That’s not to say that my French hasn’t improved tremendously in Dakar, but the village homestay really forced me to focus on it and, in turn, kind of jump-started my conversational ability.

One of my most unique memories from the village occurred after I asked Abdoulaye to show me the beach (it might not come as a surprise that I made this request about 45 minutes after arriving). After we had trudged down sandy paths for a few minutes, walking around animals and greeting children, the beach came into sight. Aboulaye, however, pointed out a straw hut to my right and said we should go greet the “grandfathers.” I realized that the “grandfathers” were basically the elders of the village, the men who make the important decisions and command enormous respect. As I slipped off my shoes and ducked into the hut, I was hit with a wave of greetings. In traditional Senegalese fashion, I made my way slowly around the circle to greet each of the ten or fifteen elders individually. My training at the Baobab Center fortunately came back to me, and I found myself instinctively grasping my right arm with my left hand as I shook the elders’ hands (as a sign of deference), bowing slightly and avoiding making prolonged eye contact, and – most surprising to me of all – shifting seamlessly among French, Wolof, and Serer to respond to salutations. Abdoulaye literally had just taught me the Serer salutations, but, despite feeling a bit flustered, I managed to remember almost everything. I exhaled a sigh of relief after I had shaken the last hand and gladly accepted Abdoulaye’s invitation to continue to the beach.

During our time in Palmarin, we enjoyed a variety of activities. Sunday began with a tour of the village and, quite memorably, was kicked off by the village chief himself. We all gathered into a small room, in which the elderly chief extended to us (by way of a translator) his best wishes and a warm welcome. We then sat in silence for a moment as he recited an ancient prayer for our safety and well-being. As we walked leisurely through the village and down the beach, huge crowds of kids fell in behind us, kicking soccer balls, shaking our hands, and laughing. They were so curious and attached that some of the local men on the tour felt obliged to shoo them away, though we tried to explain that such action was unnecessary. Sunday night was spent at a regional wresting match in a nearby village. We stopped halfway through the 45 minute trip to the village at a mango farm owned by the villagers and helped ourselves to delicious fruit straight from the trees. Wrestling is considered one of the national sports of Senegal, though it’s rather different than the wrestling known by most Westerners. The two fighters, wearing nothing but loin cloths and perhaps a few charms (grigri), begin by clawing at each other like cats, alternating hands each time. This continues until one of them thinks he sees an opening and he makes a move to take down his opponent. Sometimes, the wrestlers remain in a stand-off – each refusing to give up his current hold on the other – but eventually one of them is able to break free, make a violently quick move, and throw the other. Once contact with the sand is made, the match is over. The match we watched featured very loud drumming and African music throughout, and the audience included various sections of men and women dressed in elaborate, traditional outfits. In all, it was a bit chaotic and difficult to follow but definitely a unique experience. Monday’s main activity was a pirogue tour of the mangrove swamps. The guides laughed and called me Indiana Jones as I climbed into the narrow boat wearing my sunglasses and wide-brimmed safari hat. We rested contentedly as we motored through narrow channels among the mangroves; crocodiles didn’t present a problem, but the trip was still exciting enough. That night we attended a traditional drumming and dance exhibition performed by the women of Palmarin. The central meeting area of the village, called L’Arena, is a sand filled auditorium of sorts surrounded by baobabs. The other two male students and I – being guys – couldn’t help but pretend we were Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” and took pictures of ourselves kneeling dramatically in the sand. The drumming and dancing were amazing, and we each had a chance to join in. Basically, the dancing involves a whole lot of shaking of the booty (that was phrased politely, eh?) and stomping of the feet. The women were so coordinated that their movements coincided with the complicated rhythm of the drumming, but the students, for the most part, just kind of floundered. Two of us also managed to break a traditional, ceremonial fishing net used only for special occasions. In performing the ritual, after one of the women places a stick part of the way in the net, another woman creeps up carefully behind the stick, to the beat of the music, and then quickly snatches up the net, thereby “catching” the stick. Basically the Senegalese equivalent of a rain-dance, this ritual is supposed to bring the fishermen good luck. Well, hopefully, their fish supply hasn’t run out recently, because the two students who tried to mimic the ritual pulled too hard on the net and tore it apart. Oops.

Needless to say, living in Palmarin was very different than living in Dakar. One of the biggest changes was adjusting to having absolutely no privacy. My room, which basically was just a concrete cubicle with holes in the roof and two square openings in the walls for windows, was open to the public at all times, even at night. Abdoulaye ate all his meals with me in my room, and we sat on small stools around the bowl in traditional fashion. He also felt obliged to accompany me absolutely everywhere, so I literally didn’t have a minute to myself the entire day. My home also lacked electricity and running water, which certainly wasn’t a big deal to me but was nevertheless a change. For showering, one receives a bucket of water and a scooper with which to pour it over himself. The only problem I had with the outhouse was not knowing at first to lock the gate which separates it from the rest of the household; the goats which live beside the outhouse were all too eager to escape and wasted no time in heading for freedom. My apologies didn’t seem to carry much weight as they scampered out into the village, nay’ing mischievously. Breakfast each morning was a whole baguette eaten like a sandwich, with butter inside, and coffee to drink. Lunch and dinner were the typical Senegalese dishes – cheb., mafait, etc. Eating a lot of food is very important in Senegal, especially rural Senegal, so I was constantly being told “Mangez, mangez!” One of my friends, having visited several homestays during the evening, ended up being forced to eat four dinners in one night. At night the stars shone brighter than I could have hoped, and I was reminded of how much I enjoy the country. I do enjoy cities and all they have to offer, but I can’t help but prefer the tranquility and peace of living under the open sky.

As I mentioned earlier, surfing – as the pandemic it rightfully is – entered the village of Palmarin by way of myself. With a north swell predominating, Palmarin didn’t get much in the way of waves while I was there, but I didn’t regret for a minute taking my board. Basically, I had the chance to introduce the sport of surfing – the lifestyle of surfing – to a place it had never before touched, to a people who knew nothing about it. There were a few ripples on Monday, so I took my board out after lunch – of course, followed by an entourage of kids – and gave my first surf lesson. For some reason most of the students initially wanted to try to stand up on the side with the fins (the bottom of the board), which I found to be interesting. I also had to correct those who tried to paddle with both arms at once, which usually ended up in the board tipping over. In the end, there wasn’t a whole lot of surfing that went down (though I did manage to get a few rides), but there was a fantastic exchange of culture, and this made the trip to Palmarin all the more special.

My strongest and most cherished memory from Palmarin, though, is of the long, laughter-filled conversations I had there. My family and the family of Becky, another student, ended up spending lots of time together in the evenings, gathered around a candle talking well into the night. We literally exchanged stories, professed fears, and talked of hopes and dreams as if we’d known each other for ages. Becky speaks good French, so language hang-ups were few and far between, and I could feel my French improving by the minute. It’s amazing what you’re capable of doing when you’re thrust into a situation of having to “play up” to a higher ability level in order to keep up with others. As Becky and I told jokes in French and tried to explain and demonstrate American dances to our new friends, I could see cross-cultural bonding taking place right before my eyes. I couldn’t help but wonder whether, if I had chosen to come to Senegal on my own for a homestay experience similar to the others I’ve chosen, I would have found this very village and ended up living with this very family. It all seemed so perfect, so exactly in tune with what I always hope to get out of language and cultural immersion experiences. I felt almost as relaxed as I would at home in the States; that is, if it weren’t for Fatou…

Yes, one interesting, very memorable, element of the cross cultural bonding involved a beautiful eighteen-year-old girl named Fatou N’Dour. Fatou’s family – and my father Abdoulaye – decided early on that I was destined to be Fatou’s husband. Yes, you read that correctly. The introductions took place rather formally; Becky warned me about 10 seconds in advance about what was going to happen before Fatou appeared in front of the group, wearing her veil as usual, and was introduced to me. The jaws of the other guys in the group dropped, and they told me I’d better not pass up this opportunity. Nevertheless, after thinking the matter over I decided that, despite Fatou’s beauty and undeniable intelligence and charm, I wasn’t quite ready for marriage. After trying to convey this to the families in French, I thought the matter was settled. But, then, on the last night, just when I was relaxing into another great conversation, the sacrificial cows entered the picture. Yes, you read that correctly as well. Fatou’s family began reiterating how much they would love for me to take Fatou back to America. I stumbled through an explanation of how I couldn’t afford to buy her plane ticket, but, in doing so, I really opened up a can of worms. Abdoulaye suddenly piped in, promising me that he would buy the plane ticket. Then, he made the offer which he honestly thought would seal the deal: 5 sacrificial cows! Holy beef, an airline ticket, a beautiful bride…what more could I have possibly asked for? Still a bit ecstatic at the prospect of receiving those heffers, I simply couldn’t make my French work. Not a word. Fortunately, Becky came to my aid and tactfully changed the subject while politely declining the marriage for me. I don’t even remember what she said (“Man, that’s a lot of beef…”), but whatever it was, it apparently worked. As I rode off the next morning in my big orange bus, my face plastered to the window in order to steal one last glance at the bride who could have been, I couldn’t help but wonder… “Will she always be the one who got away?” This I may never know, but I am truly afraid that I’ll never really come to terms with my passing up the sacrificial cows…perhaps the greatest mistake of my life.

After a brief stop on Tuesday at a game reserve, at which we saw rhinoceros (very up-close!), giraffes, crocodiles, and many other cool African animals, we returned to find Dakar as loud and brash as ever. Though I do love Dakar and all its personality, I’ll always feel a bit of nostalgia for the laid-back, friendly pace of life in Palmarin. The friendships I formed there in such a short amount of time are truly a testament to the hospitality and openness of its people, whose memory I will long cherish.


At 12:08 PM, Blogger Neil said...

alex...i'm obviously late in reading this, but i just thought i'd let you know that i was also once the target of an arranged marriage. i was offered a house to go with it. i also declined.


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