Wowzers…. It has been forever seen I’ve posted on my blog. So what have I been up to, you say? What a great question! Finishing up my new apartment, traveling to Salt Lake, Portland, Seattle, and Richland, WA… proofing new temple prints for LarkPrints Photography… catching up with old friends… going to Park City to see the Thompsons… building forts with my nephews… creating and destroying Lego “houses” with Henry… playing with my sister’s dogs… eating yummy American food… going up to campus to regain my bearings… finding library books that I have to read for my preliminary exams. You name it, I’ve probably done it.
But I know what y’all are waiting for. Pictures of Henry and Miles. The smartest, sweetest, most handsome boys on the planet. More stories to follow!
It’s after midnight here in Dakar so that means that technically, I fly home to the United States in two days. Yep, two days from now I’ll be back in Madison, hugging my dad (and probably crying), eating some really yummy food, and sleeping in my bed for the first time in 10 months. And the day after my mom will be flying home from Utah and the hugging and crying will start all over again. We’re criers in our family. But they’ll be good tears.
While I am profoundly grateful for the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited and the things that I have learned, I am absolutely thrilled and even more grateful to be going home.
My first two weeks will be a whirlwind of activities, including finalizing things for my new apartment, getting things settled with my car, going through belongings to see what things I can get rid of, seeing my extended family over the Fourth of July weekend, and moving into said new apartment. And from the minute I step off of that plane at O’Hare – wait, probably from the time I board the plane in Dakar – I will get questions like, “Why did you go to Senegal?” “Why did you choose that particular topic when you could have chosen so many more positive things to write your dissertation on?” “Why Africa?” Those are all good, valid questions. But more often than not, I’ll also get the more banal, humdrum, run-of-the-mill, barely-scratch-the surface questions like “What was your favorite thing/place/person you saw/visited/met in Senegal?” “Do the Senegalese have TVs and drive cars?” “What’s the food like?” “How was the weather?” And my all-time favorite: “In three or four sentences, tell us about the highlights of your trip.”
HUH?? As Genie says in Aladdin, “What? Doth my ears deceive me??” I just spent 10 months over there and you want me to distill all of the sights, smells, tastes, people, joys, frustrations, things-I-wish-I-did-differently moments, cultural adjustments, soul-searching, fear, bewilderment, helplessness, empowerment and happiness I experienced into 3 or 4 sentences? You’re nuts! (And evidently, so I am I because I just quoted a line from a 21 year-old Disney film in an otherwise very somber, intellectual post. Seriously, guys, I haven’t watched that movie in at least 15 years. But that’s beside the point).
I know that these types of questions are coming because those are the exact same questions people asked me when I came back from my other two residencies abroad… except for the TVs and cars one… And in all fairness, those types of questions aren’t an affront to me or what I study. The people who ask them have good intentions, and they’re trying to express interest in what I do and understand what makes me and my research tick. So I can’t get miffed about it. And usually I don’t. Because I understand. I’ve asked those stupid questions myself in the past, even when I knew better. But they’re not the best kind of questions that one should ask another person who has dedicated the last however many months or years to a single topic/area of expertise and who will continue to dedicate – or at least be heavily interested and involved with it – for the rest of his or her life.
So what types of questions should be asked by others – including by the one who had the experience (aka – during moments of self-reflection and pondering)? Well, in essence, the ones that you have to think about in order to formulate and the ones that become springboards to substantial elaboration. Here are a few off the top of my head:
- What are some of the most important things you learned during your time abroad?
- What aspect of their culture touched your heart the most? Why?
- What do you appreciate the most about those people/cultures/experiences and why?
- How has this time made you a better person?
- How are you going to take what you have learned and make a difference in your life and the lives of the people you will touch in the future?
- What would you want someone like me to understand about x, y, or z?
- What were the things you experienced over there make you more grateful for your upbringing/cultural heritage/family/job/blessings?
- Are there any people/places/things (yes, that is the definition of a noun) that you hope to never take for granted again and why?
- How have you changed for the better?
- What did you do when times got tough and you wanted to throw in the towel? What kept you going?
- How did you see the hand of God directing you or the people you worked with?
Those are hard questions, and your friend may have a little difficulty answering them. Or at least putting all of those feelings into words for the first time. But those are the ones that really show interest, and more often than not, those are the questions that s/he wants you to ask because their answers will embody the complexity of the most important aspects of their experience. Some of those questions are quite personal and depending on how well you know him/her, they might be inappropriate for you to ask. However, those questions will get him/her thinking and will help that individual identify and process the richness and uniqueness of their experiences. If they can’t share them with you, at least you’ve helped them put feelings and heart beats into words.
So by all means, when you see me, ask me those questions. As soon as I stepped off the plane into the stifling humidity that envelops Dakar in September, I’ve been asking myself those exact questions, trying to wade through some of the answers and trying to formulate them into one cohesive whole. It’s hard because they’re multi-faceted and don’t lend well to quick, off-the-cuff conversations.
A lot of you ask me why I don’t write more specifically about the things I’m researching and seeing with the children. Well, there are several reasons. First, some of the things I’ve experienced here are so completely unbelievable that if I hadn’t seen them myself, I’d question my honesty as I reported them. Second, you have no idea how much suffering these people go through, nor can you readily identify with how happy most of them remain throughout their horrendous difficulties. You have to see it and experience it for yourself. Most of us Westerners really need to suck it up, stop whining, and look for the blessings in our lives. Because we flip out if we can’t get the smartphone we want or go on that trip we’ve been looking forward to, etc. We think our life is “over” if we have to go without this or that or don’t do this or that. Give me a break, guys. These people are pretty down far the ladder in terms of material wealth and bodily health, and yet their smiles are some of the biggest and brightest I have ever seen, and their laughs have more life and sincerity than the majority of ours. And yes, I am chastising myself just as much as I’m chastising you. Because I flip out unnecessarily, too.
Third, a lot of what I’ve been doing will turn into intellectual property and play major roles in my dissertation and future publications. So it isn’t necessarily in my best academic or professional interest to have them plastered on the internet for others to take and use for their own purposes without being able to control how they’re used. Fourth, and most importantly, I have seen and experienced things that are so terrible and evil… that I don’t think I will ever be able to talk about them – and if by some miracle I do, it will be several years down the road.
But I can tell you the following.
I am proud and humbled to be an American. I love my country, I love my freedoms, and I hate seeing them being stripped away by people who think we need to be more like other countries and other cultures. I will not apologize for or be ashamed of what we hold dear, nor will I bow down to what other people think we should do/be or not do/be. Because I have seen what such actions can do to a whole society. And Senegal is a model in West Africa and the surrounding area. The Senegalese have it good compared to other countries. Think about that one for a while. Are they good people? Do they have things to offer me and others as far as values and the way they treat others? Do they have just as much inherent potential and value as you or me? By and large, have I enjoyed my experience with them? To all of these questions, I respond, by all means YES! But I cannot tell you how much my heart swells with gratitude when I see my flag and think of the myriad of things it symbolizes.
Similarly, we all need to be careful of smooth talkers – no matter what profession they practice, no matter what social class they belong to, no matter what religion they adhere to, no matter how beautiful or popular or rich they are. Because they do not always have our best interest at heart. This is true in politics, and this is especially true in leader/follower or mentor/mentoree relationships. In my current context, I have seen this time and time again as families entrust the care of their young children to individuals who they think are good men. But they turn out to be the worst kind of charlatans and do unspeakable things to children who range from the age where they just barely cut their teeth to the late teens and early 20s. Things are not always as they seem, and we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to study it out from every different angle possible, and especially to not fall into traps that so often come with the proverbial bandwagon. We do not have to be like everyone else. We do not have to keep up with the Jonses (sorry, Dan and Darla!).
Families are the most important thing that you and I have, and they are society’s most important unit. Nothing can replace loving parents who honor their marital commitments and strive to raise their children in kindness, with soft voices and warm hands, and with the purest of love. Parents, don’t get sucked into the media and money-crazed world that we live in. Put the phone, laptop, iPad down (or anything that is similar metaphorically) and pay attention to that little voice who is asking for your attention or to the little hand resting on your knee in the hopes that you will pick him/her up and hug him/her close. The phone will be there when you get back. So will the computer or the TV or that book or that project you’re working on. Stop allowing yourself to be distracted by the things that matter the least and ignoring the people that mean the most. I have always been very sensitive to the needs and actions of little children – and if anything, these last 10 months have made me even more so. Play with them, speak gently to them, hug them, kiss them. Remember that when they’re little they’re still learning – don’t develop unrealistic expectations for a young child that s/he cannot achieve. If you do, you’re setting both you and him/her up for heartache and disappointment, and the little one will learn to fear you and not trust you. Help your kids know and understand by your words – and most importantly – your actions that they are loved and that no matter what happens in the world or what stupid (or serious) mistake they make that you will always, always, always love them. Don’t let your bad mood dictate how you treat them – it’s your problem, not theirs. Because they will remember it, and their little spirits will break.
Remember that the relationship you have with your spouse affects them in ways that you can’t even fathom. So if you and your spouse aren’t doing so great, love yourself, him/her and especially your child enough to evaluate where you went off track. Stop getting mad over stupid stuff. Stop yelling. Stop arguing. Be adults and learn to work out your differences like adults. The other person isn’t entirely at fault. You share part of the blame. So stop deluding yourself into thinking otherwise. Of course there are situations where splitting up and divorcing is inevitable and the best solution in the end. But by and large, your problems can be fixed fairly easily. So be a man (or woman as your situation dictates) and suck it up. Stop being so selfish. Because it’s not just you who is unhappy. Your spouse is, too. And remember that there is a little pair of eyes watching you from around the wall, eyes that are filled with pain, tears, and fear because you are his/her world. And if your world falls apart due to ridiculous reasons, so will his/hers. I don’t care how old the child is – even if s/he is an adult. I promise you that they will have the harder end of the deal than you.
I realize that these are harsh words. Most of you know that I have no tolerance for those kind of things. But as one who has seen to the bottom of the cesspool, please realize that I only have your best interests (and those of children) in mind when I say what I say. Can children and child-rearing be difficult? Yes, of course. Don’t think for one minute that I don’t recognize this or that I haven’t experienced it just because I’m not yet a mother. But remember that your child can test your patience, love, and metal without you reacting or retaliating in a way that is unbecoming of their parent, the person that should love them unconditionally. They don’t force you to react one way or the other. They have no control over your reaction. You chose how you will respond. Not them.
Cherish your families and treat them accordingly. Live so you won’t have any regrets if you don’t wake up tomorrow. Live so your children know, see, and understand that they are loved.
Lastly, God lives and He is good. Despite of what I have seen and experienced lately (and even in my past), I know that He is aware of us as individuals and that He cares very much about what we are all going through. I’ve heard the following expression over and over since my arrival in Senegal: “God? What God? How can He see this suffering and not do anything about it? If God exists, He must be dead.”
God is not dead. He is always reaching out to us, always willing to relieve our pain, always willing to enfold us in His arms of love. But just like any other relationship, we must put forth the effort to know Him and embrace His goodness. How can He help us if we give into despair and refuse to find the good in the world and people that surround us? How can He help us if we have adopted a fatalistic attitude?
Let us be better friends and disciples, let us seek for and fight for the good. And we will find that He is and always has been right by our side.
There is always hope. There is always light at the end of His tunnel – we just have to choose not to dynamite the cavern and block our path to what lies ahead.
So in a nutshell, that’s what Senegal and studying/working with victims of child trafficking have taught me. There’s certainly a lot more, but in essence, my time here has helped push aside the fluff and focus on what’s important.
I pray that I may keep this perspective uncluttered and move forward with faith, hope, the determination to work hard, and the courage to love when it is difficult to do so.
Wow, it’s alarming how I have neglected to write on my blog. April consisted of doing hundreds of hours worth of research for my final papers, and then I had to write them in May. Talk about not enough hours in the day. So here we go…
[Deep breath] in mid-April I called up my friend, Khadim Bousso, who I know through my internship at PARRER and asked if he’d be willing to do an interview with me to help me in my immediate and long-term research. He gladly accepted, and he invited me to his cousin’s house so he could act as translator. Khadim is 33 years old and is one of the oldest sons of the Imam of the Great Mosque in Touba, the spiritual and cultural center of the Mouride brotherhood (Sufi Islam). Khadim’s great-grandfather was Cheikh Hamidou Bamba Mbacke’s marabout and uncle. (Cheikh Hamidou Bamba is also known as Serigne Touba, and he’s the founder of Mouridism). Familial ties create father/son/daughter relationships between an uncle with his nephews and nieces. Similarly, mother/son/daughter relationships exists between aunts and her nephews and nieces. So let’s put this into context… if I were to apply this notion to myself, my sister’s children would be considered my children, and I would be considered my aunt’s daughter. Therefore, since Serigne Touba’s uncle was a Bousso, the Bousso line is considered to be descendants of Serigne Touba, and that makes Khadim one of Serigne Touba’s grandsons. Since Serigne Touba was taught by a Bousso, all of the educational and teaching responsibilities in the Mouride brotherhood are controlled, delegated, and carried out by the Bousso family. They’re also in charge of protecting and maintaining the tomb of Cheikh Hamidou Bamba. The Mbacke family (specifically the male descendants of Serigne Touba) are named the khalif of the brotherhood. That position is essentially the civic and religious leader of the whole brotherhood – and the brotherhood had millions of adherents throughout West Africa, parts of Europe, and there’s even a fairly substantial population in New York City. So it was a big deal to have Khadim agree to do an interview with me.
After our interview, we at dinner with a couple of Khadim’s brothers, Ndiamé (his cousin), and Sokhna, Ndiamé’s wife. Ndiamé and Sokhna have a 6 month-old girl named Khadija, and Khadija and I became fast friends. It was a very pleasant evening, and when I said that I hadn’t been to Touba, Khadim offered to drive me there one weekend when he went to visit his family.
So a couple of weeks later, he and I, along with his mother and a couple of other relatives made the (normally) 4-hour trip into the interior of the country. We arrived fairly late due to traffic and having to stop in almost every little town so we could greet other friends and family members. Finally around 10 pm we made it to the Bousso’s traditional home, and after dropping our things off, Khadim took me around the city. An arched gateway leads to what we would call the “city center,” and it is illegal to drink or smoke beyond that point. Guards stop cars before they enter, but since they recognize Khadim’s car, we just drove right on through. The Great Mosque is located on a huge tract of land right in the middle of the city. It sits on a gated plot of land and the ground surrounding the mosque and various annexes is completely covered in large marble slabs. There’s no grass – just marble. The whole outer elevation of the mosque is made of marble slabs and mosaics imported from various European countries. Five minarets surround the mosque itself (they’re in the middle of building 2 more), and smaller buildings surround it house the tombs of Serigne Touba’s sons who were the khalifs after his death. Workers have been repairing broken pieces of marble and/or mosaics, so along with the construction of the two new minarets, most of the mosque was covered with scaffolding.
We walked around the gates, and when we reached a section of the sidewalk that faced the library Khadim and his brothers took off their shoes and walked barefoot until a designated spot further down the sidewalk. I asked if I should remove mine, as well, but they said that I wasn’t required to. Evidently hundreds of copies of the Koran are buried underneath that section of the sidewalk. After we were done walking around the mosque, he took me around in his car to show me other areas of town (and he stopped to get a haircut), and then he took me back to the traditional home. He said that his family has several houses in Touba and in a neighboring town (and in Dakar), but he didn’t want me to stay there because he wanted me to have the experience of staying in a traditional house. I thought that was pretty cool.
When we returned, his mother, sisters, and sisters-in-law had dinner prepared (at 11:30 pm), and they pulled a mattress and grass mats into the sandy courtyard and we sat and ate dinner with our hands in a communal bowl. Some of them spoke French, but mostly they spoke Arabic and Wolof – so it was kind of entertaining to try and communicate. The little kids thought I was something else – a toubab (white person) doesn’t stay with them very often, so I had a lot of little pairs of eyes silently staring at me in the darkness. The family had me go to bed around midnight or shortly thereafter. However, everyone else, including the little kids, stayed up for at least another hour.
The next morning I took a bucket shower and had bread, scrambled eggs and warm powdered milk for breakfast. I’m actually going to miss the powdered milk they have here – it’s fairly thick and creamy and has an interesting sweetness to it. When Khadim woke up and finished eating we went back to the mosque – I was excited to go in, but I didn’t realize there were certain parts that Christians aren’t allowed to go in. They asked me to take my sandals off when I entered the gate. Unfortunately, the marble was already extremely hot from the sun (it’s significantly hotter in the interior of Senegal than in Dakar) and within seconds a large water blister formed across the length of the balls of my right foot. It HURT!! And it takes a while to cross the complex, so I had to walk that way for quite a distance. At one point Khadim turned back and saw my face and he felt really bad – he said that he forgets that most Westerners aren’t used to walking everywhere and anywhere barefoot and have sensitive soles. He took me to the outer chamber that leads to the Cheikh Hamidou Bamba’s tomb. It was really interesting to see peoples’ reaction when he walked in – they were lined up waiting their turn to enter the tomb. I asked if he knew them and he said he knew a few, but that he didn’t know the grand majority of them. But they certainly knew him. He doesn’t dress differently than any other Senegalese men, so I’m guessing that the Bousso and Mbancké genes are very recognizable.
Unfortunately he didn’t take me to the parts of the mosque that Christians are allowed to see. So I didn’t get to see much of the inside – but what I did see was pretty impressive. We left the complex (which means I had to walk on those hot slabs again!) we drove to his friend’s house and watched TV for several hours. The little kids filed in and out of the room where we were. Some of them were really inquisitive and brave, others were really shy and didn’t know what to do as they stared at me, and one 4 year-old girl, Khadija, was a complete ham. She pointed at my camera and started striking poses. So I humored her and snapped away. Some of her other friends joined in, so she definitely acted as an icebreaker. She was a blast. Then I had to go around to the various parts of the house and meet everyone, especially the mothers and grandmother.
We went back to Khadim’s house later that night, and once again, they pulled out mats and mattresses so we could eat dinner on the ground. After we ate we laid out under the stars, and they gave me Wolof lessons (and laughed at my attempts to formulate more complicated sentences or learn new vocabulary words). Then they all wanted me to teach them some English – and then it was my turn to laugh good-naturedly with them. The little kids picked up on it fairly quickly. Around 10 pm the older boys (probably between 9-15) came home from their long day at the daara (Koranic school). They had their tomato cans tucked under their arms – so they definitely have a different experience as talibés than most of the young boys that I’ve seen and worked with in Dakar. They go to the daara at sunrise for a few hours to learn their verses, and then they spend some time begging, followed by attending a Franco-Arabic school (reading, writing, math, etc). Then they spend a few more hours back at the daara and out on the streets begging before heading home well after dark.
It was a lot of fun to spend time with Khadim’s family and see how people live outside of Dakar. They asked about my family and my interests. When they asked what my Senegalese name was (Awa Seck), Khadim’s mom said, “My name is Awa!!” And she was tickled pink. She followed that up with, “But your name is no longer Awa Seck. It’s Awa Bousso. You are part of our family now, and you’re now named after the wife of Serigne Touba.” I was really touched by that. We stayed up for another hour or so to enjoy the coolness of the night air, and then I went to bed.
We left earlier the next day so we could go to the library – that didn’t end up happening, but it was still good to be in Touba and meet the people I did. Maybe another time when I’m in Senegal I’ll get to go see more of the mosque and the library. All in all, I’m really glad that I went.