Laughing and Giggling Like Little School Girls

Yesterday we arrived in Kolda at approximately 2:45 PM after 3 hours of driving.  Right after we checked into the hotel we went to the outside restaurant that’s right next to the swimming pool.  I sat across from Madame Sy and she had me smiling the whole time.  Usually the Senegalese eat lunch at 1:30 and by the time the servers gave us their food it was about 3:15.  Evidently Madame Sy was really tired from the trip (the roads were extremely bad and our heads were jostling back and forth from having to drive over deep potholes).  Usually she’s a very happy person and she always has a quick, ready smile to give to people.  However the fact that the voyage was so difficult, combined with the fact that she was very hungry, her feathers were kind of ruffled.  Just after the server took her order she furrowed her brow and sighed really heavily and said, “Oh, I’m so tired!” She stuck out her bottom lip just a bit and pouted for a minute or two.  Soon we all got to talking but all of a sudden she slumped back into her chair, stuck out her lip again and muttered, “Goodness, what is taking them so long?” and with great emphasis she crossed her arms and said, “I’m hungry!”  I was trying so hard not to laugh at her, but she was just so cute.  Then about two minutes later she exclaimed, “These girls are so slow!!  What’s up with this??”  I couldn’t take it any more.  I started laughing and in my effort not to make any noise, my whole body shook and I had to cover my mouth.  I couldn’t look at her.  She looked over at me and got an indignant grin on her face that said, “Well??  It’s true!”  And she started to giggle a little because I was laughing at her.  We were still waiting – in reality it really was getting a little ridiculous – and she sighed really loud, looked over at me again and said, “Lark, stop laughing at me!”  I finally laughed out loud and said, “But you’re just so cute about it that I can’t help it!  I think you’re hilarious!”  Khady started laughing, too and Madame Sy threw her hands up and said, “Well, she’s taking forever!  What on earth could she be doing?  Gee whiz!”  That last line was the kicker – I really lost it.  That made Khady laugh even more, and then Madame Sy joined in.  Reading about the experience doesn’t do it justice – her facial expressions and tone of voice were something else.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Finally our food came and she dug right in and ate heartily.

This morning as we were outside of the regional government office waiting for things to start, Madame Sy and I were sitting next to each other.  She turned to me and said, “Lark, I was so tired yesterday.  I went up to my room after lunch and I fell right to sleep.  I slept so soundly that I didn’t even get go out for dinner.”  I smiled and replied, “I noticed.  You were having a hard time yesterday at lunchtime.”  She got a big smile on her face and she laughed, and laughed, and laughed.  “Ah, you noticed!”  “Well of course I noticed!!  It was kind of hard not to!”  And I began imitating what she said and how she said it – sighing, slouching, hand gestures, the pouty lip and all.  She laughed so hard at my impressions that she doubled over in her chair, slapped her knee, and laughed her head off.  Of course that made me start laughing – and since I didn’t sleep well last night I was a little giddy – and her reaction encouraged me to embellish my impressions.  I had a willing audience.  I got her laughing so hard that she cried and couldn’t breathe.  She held her stomach and said, “Stop!  Stop!  You’re making my stomach hurt!”  Of course that just added fuel to the fire.  I wasn’t about to quit then.  Finally she said, “You’ve got to understand, when I don’t eat at the regular time I just can’t help it.  Plus, that girl was extremely slow and it was ridiculous.  And I was tired!!”  I replied, “So that makes you pout like a five-year old child??”  “Well… yeah!!”  We laughed and laughed and laughed, then laughed some more.  She had tears streaming down her face and she gasped for air.  It was awesome!  Bamba, Imam Samb and Mamadou Wade just looked at us and shook their heads and chuckled every once in a while.  Our laughing spell lasted a good 10 minutes and it was great.  I haven’t laughed that hard since Cecilia drew “the Finger” and danced around the dining room chanting, “The Finger, the Finger, the Finger!”

Ah, such good memories…!


Tambacounda and the Imams

We had a meeting with approximately 30 imams and maîtres coranique Thursday morning and afternoon at the regional government seat in Tambacounda.  Since 99.9% of the imams don’t speak French, these meetings are always conducted in Wolof.  So that gives me lots of listening comprehension practice, and from time to time my colleagues also get to hone their live translation techniques.  Imam Ousman Samb presented verses from the Koran and various hadiths that talk about the responsibility of parents and adults towards children, violence (in and out of the family unit), begging, and the safety of children.  UNICEF and PARRER commissioned him to work on a document in French and Wolof on those same subject that they, along with the Senegalese Ministry of the Family, just published last year and he used a lot of that in his presentation.  Since we’re asking imams around the country to address the dangers associated with child begging, he also prepared a model sermon that they can use in their meetings should they chose to do so.

Something that I still have a little trouble understanding is the shock that crosses their faces when we tell them that when parents confer their sons to itinerant marabouts – many of whom end up taking them from their villages located throughout Senegal and moving them to Dakar – the children end up spending the grand majority of their time on the street rather than learning to recite the Koran.  Instead, many become victims of various forms of violence and pedophilia.  Many imams, even those in Dakar, don’t believe that when we tell them.  It’s such a well documented fact that it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that they’re not aware of it.  Their ignorance (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense) stems from the fact that many do not have access to the internet, it’s rarely brought up in all its horrors on national TV, and newspaper stories are superficial at best.  In fact I’m not at all impressed with the press here.  But that’s a story for a different time.  The statistics come from Western organizations and while the government is aware of the issue, the strong influence that religion has in politics causes people to skirt around it.  You know the expression “the elephant in the room”?  Yeah, well this is an ENORMOUS elephant, the granddaddy of them all, and no one has had enough courage to effectively enforce child trafficking laws that they ratified back in 2005.  (I’ve written several academic papers on this aspect, so while I’m not citing references here I will gladly do so if people would like to read up on the subject).  Another reason why disbelief runs rampant is that a generation or two ago, those ills weren’t associated with Koranic education in any way, shape, or form.  So today’s imams only have their effective, and in many cases holistic, perspective and experiences to draw upon.  It doesn’t even enter their mind that something like child rape, the heavy usage of illicit drugs, etc occurs.  A sad commentary on our times.  Oh, how the world has changed.

So their first reaction to our presentation is resistance – many of them think that we’re fighting against Islamic tradition, specifically that of teaching young boys to memorize the Koran.  But we’re not.  We’re asking that since anyone can proclaim themselves to be a Koranic teacher, that, as well-respected individuals in the community, they as imams effectively caution parents to be wary of men who masquerade as Koranic teachers.  The second most common thing they say is that federal funds need to be set aside for Koranic schools, not just for the French system (again, that is another topic for another day), and that it’s the government’s job to hold those men accountable and convict them in courts of law.  And they’re right.  The government absolutely needs to step up to the plate and stop cowering behind the status quo and the way things used to be.  But these imams often forget that they have a role to play, too.  And quite frankly, so do parents.  And our team is working with all three parties.  A third thing that often comes up in these meetings is denial.  “Oh, that doesn’t happen in our daaras (Koranic schools).  Our talibés (students) are happy and aren’t mistreated at all.”  It has always surprised me that my superiors and the big-wig imams who are working on this project don’t call those individuals out on the carpet.  Because it does, and they are.  And there are scores of documentation in the offices of various local and international NGOs that prove it, not to mention those of the United States Departments of State and Labor and the United Nations.  Maybe it’s my hard-nosed, stubborn, in-your-face streak that gets my dander up because I would have absolutely no problem calling their bluff and calling a spade a spade.  Stuff like that ticks me off and I don’t have any tolerance for it whatsoever.

So you can imagine how hard it was to fight my urge to stand up and clap when one NGO leader that works in this region did what I’ve been wanting to do ever since I arrived in this country.  One imam fed us the line about how well their daaras are run and this guy looked him straight in the eye, pointed his finger at the imam and effectively said, “That’s not true and you know it.”  And he went on to say that on December 31st (just last week) he met a young talibé who had fled his daara because of the abuse to which he had been subjected.  The director took compassion on the boy and he took him into his own house and he’s staying there until arrangements can be made to send him back to his parents.  You should have seen everyone’s faces.  They’d been called out and they were totally feeling guilty.  We got a lot further with them after that.

Side note: I’m so grateful for the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all of the planning, intellectual and financial efforts, standardization of teaching materials, and training that our general leaders invest in making sure that the doctrine remains pure.  I’m also grateful that individuals who grossly stray from it are held accountable.  So many problems that are tied to this child begging issue could have been avoided had efforts been made to ensure that their practices (Islam in general and Sufi Islam specifically) are the same across the board.  Other cultural practices add to the problem, but by and large it goes back to religious doctrinal standardization and accountability.

After our meetings one of the more receptive imams took us to the homes of three other imams so we could meet with them and ask them for their support.  Evidently they hold a lot of religious and political clout, but due to their age, they weren’t able to come to our meeting.  It was very interesting to be in their homes.  They were in some of the poorer areas of town, they were quite simple, and they were often surrounded by family and neighbors who had lots of little children.  We had to take our shoes off before entering the sitting room, the women didn’t speak other than giving the customary greetings, so the whole affair was done between men.  I noticed that out of respect to the imam, no one looked him directly in the eye (except for me before I realized what was going on – it kind of unnerved the first one we met with).  The conversation was spoken in either Wolof or Pulaar and no one except for the oldest member of our group spoke to him directly.  It was all done by a spokesman.  When the imam wanted to tell us something, he told the spokesman and then the spokesman relayed it on to us.  At the end the imam prayed for us and the success of our mission.  Later Bamba told me that all three of them said that they would address the issue that night at the Friday night prayer.  That’s a big deal because the Friday prayers are the most important of the week.  At dinner Imam Ousman Samb, the big-wig imam ratib from Dakar who is part of our team, told me that the third imam that we visited said a beautiful prayer over us before we left his house.  It was a very long prayer – that’s basically all I got from it – but Imam Samb said that the language he used was quite beautiful.  Evidently that imam is considered as one who has devoted his life to God so completely that he has achieved the status of one who “sees and knows hidden things.”

In the course of 90 minutes of silent observation I learned scores of things about the cultural and religious customs of Senegal – very interesting stuff.

Everyone was exceptionally pleased during our car ride back to the hotel because all three of them agreed to help us and encourage the imams he presides over to read the materials we created and address the issue in their sermons.  So it was a good day and quite effective.  Here’s hoping that our efforts and training aren’t abandoned and left by the wayside.


Sociologist Mamadou Wade, the imam, the spokesman


Bamba (in the olive colored robe) giving the imam the materials addressing child begging


This week Bamba, Madame Ndiaye, Madame Sy, Khady, and I are traveling to two cities in the southern region of Senegal.  We arrived in Tambacounda last night (462 km = 287 miles) after about 8 hours of traveling.  That included stopping to eat in Mbour for 30 or 45 minutes – but it was slow going due to poor roads full of potholes, following old semis, and one-lane highways.  The landscape didn’t change all that much until we got just outside of Tamba.  For the most part, the countryside was scattered with low-lying brush, tall, dried-out grasses, and baobab forests.  Some of the trees had leaves on them, others didn’t.  Small villages with mud or cement huts with grass roofs dotted the sides of the highway.  Sometimes the village consisted of several concessions (a compound marked off with a tall grass/straw fence that holds one family – houses for the husband, the wife/wives, the children, etc), other times they were just a hand full of solitary huts.  Herds of goats and cattle that look a lot like Brahmans – but probably aren’t – grazed all around, and sometimes they even caused “traffic jams” because they wandered all over the road.  Other than that, the only wildlife I saw were lots birds with really bright, beautiful plumage and two monkeys that darted across the road.

If you look at a satellite map of Senegal, you’ll notice that Tamba is right on the edge of the greener part of the country.  While this region is just as dusty as the northern part, a bigger variety of trees grow here, and there are more of them.  We’ll be traveling as far as Kolda in the Casamance before returning to Dakar.  We went in and east/southeasterly direction to come here, and when we return we’ll go through The Gambia, a long, skinny English-speaking country that surrounds the Gambia River.

My January trip around Senegal

My January trip around Senegal

Bigger cities like Fatick, Kaolack and so far Tamba aren’t quite as developed as Dakar.  In fact they reminded me of the higher end of the poorest Dakar neighborhoods.  My Wolof teacher at the University of Florida hails from Fatick.  Kaolack spreads out for what seems like forever (and you don’t realize it until you get out of town because the highway just brushes the outer corner of the city), and Tamba only has a few paved roads.  In the cities the nicer houses are mostly made of cinder block and have corrugated tin roofs. Others are made out of old scrap wood, car doors, random sticks, or any hodge-podge of materials that the families could salvage.  The roofs of those houses are made of a flat board covered in an array of warped wood (almost like large chunks of tree bark), tires, rocks, and anything that can keep the sun and rain out.

Last night I went out to eat with Bamba, Mamadou Wade, Madame Ndiaye and the chauffeur – we ended up going to a djibouterie (I think that’s how it’s spelled) which is a little tiny restaurant made out of the same scrounged up material as the houses that has slabs of raw mutton hanging from large iron hooks out in the open air.  When I saw that that was where we were going (and they were really excited about it because it was “real, authentic” food that you can’t get the same taste from in Dakar), my heart sunk a little.  Not only do I not like mutton because it makes me sick, but I’ve sworn many a time that I’d never eat meat from places like that.  Yeah, they’re all over Dakar and I’ve seen the flies and bugs that swarm and/or crawl all over that meat.  In fact, I’d just reminded myself yesterday morning while driving through Mbour that I’d never eat it.  And there I was, stuck because that was the only place they even considered eating.  And it was probably the only type of restaurant that was open at that hour.  So I was like, “Ooooohhh, no.  Heaven help me!”  And I started praying really hard that my stomach would be able to handle the food.  The guy cooked it on an open wood fire and brought it to our table on a piece of butcher paper (or it’s Senegalese equivalent) with dabs of dijon mustard on the sides.  Everyone dug in with their bare hands, and there was nothing else to do but join in.  We ate pretty much in the dark – there wasn’t much for electrical devices, just a small blue light and a tiny, tiny TV that the butcher/chef was watching as he waited for customers.  Much to my surprise, I liked the taste and as of today, my stomach hasn’t given me too many problems.  My digestive track isn’t exactly happy, but I haven’t spent all day in the bathroom.  That was good because I’ve been in meetings all day and that would not have been an option!

All that being said, our hotel is nice and has beautiful flowering bushes.  Enjoy the pictures that follow.  I’ll write more about our meetings here either tomorrow or in a couple of days when I have more time.  Tomorrow we head out to Kolda, a trip of 224 km (139 miles) that will take 3 or 4 hours due to poor roads.

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Boubous and a Shooting at the Office

No, I’m not talking about “owies” or multiple reproductions of Yogie Bear’s loveable sidekick.  I’m talking about Senegal’s mbubb – the country’s traditional dress.  On Friday November 9, I went to a tailor and had two of them made.  I’d picked out my material back in September, but I wanted to find a good tailor and I didn’t quite know how to go about that.  It turns out that Faye, the 25 year-old girl that I share my office with has an uncle (or some relative) that is a tailor, so she took me to see him.  He had quite a few magazines of different styles, so I picked two out, asked him to change the style of the sleeves, and I also mixed and matched the pattern of the dress and the embroidery designs.  He let me pick out the different colors I wanted for the embroidery – and it’s a good thing he did because when I asked for his suggestions, I didn’t like the options that he gave me.  So I’m glad he let me have the final say in that regard.  The amazing thing is that the tailors don’t work from patterns.  They just look at the picture and get to work.   I could have had more complicated designs embroidered in, but the more elegant ones made the final cost much more expensive.  But I’m happy with the ones I finally chose.  I picked the dresses up Thursday the 15th after work and wore one of them to the office the next day.  Since I knew my mother (and other people, as well) would want pictures of them, I took my camera to the office, too.  My nice professional camera that looks way impressive.  As soon as my co-workers saw me in my boubou with my camera, they immediately lined up for pictures.  So we had a fashion photo shoot.  I’d never seen them let their hair down like that, so it kind of surprised me.  Normally they’re all business, but as soon as they saw that camera, the professional demeanor flew out the window.  It was awesome.

It was amazing to see their reaction to my outfit.  All of the ladies got huge smiles, and they were so tickled to see me à la Sénégalaise that they laughed, clapped their hands, and hugged me.  Madame Sy, the PARRER secretary tied my head wrap.  They had me turn in circles and they oohed and ahhed over the whole thing and told me how beautiful I looked.    All of them wanted to be in a picture with me, and then the younger ones struck pose after pose in their boubous.  Finally, after about 20 minutes Bamba – the executive director – came into Madame Ndiaye’s office and was like, “What in the world is going on in here?”  And then he saw me and he said, “Oh!  Well!  She’s turned into one of us!” and he gave me quite a few compliments, too.  It was pretty fun.  Then he went back into his office and grabbed his iPad and started taking pictures of me and the girls, too.  It was quite hilarious.

On my way home a lot of Senegalese men and women smiled and told me how pretty my dress was – which means that I got quite a few more catcalls than normal.  But I didn’t mind it quite as much that day.  It was amazing to see how proud and happy everyone was to see me in the the traditional dress.  When I got home I retied the wrap because I wasn’t too crazy about the one that the ladies did at the office.  Plus I had to practice to make sure that I could tie one on my own.  It’s harder than it looks, but I succeeded.  I also documented that for posterity.  Needless to say, I was pretty proud of my feat!

I wore my blue one to Church at the Jones’ today.  Tristan echoed my sister Amber’s comment when he said that the design looked like Spiderman costume, and then Lissa asked if I’d intentionally chose the colors so it would look like an IKEA bag.  That made me laugh – I hadn’t even thought of that… but it’s true.  Oh well.  It was better than the nasty brown color that the tailor originally wanted to use.

So there you go.  It was quite the experience.  Fortunately there weren’t any casualties at the shooting.