Reliving 9/11 in Dallas

A lot has happened since my last post – I’ve had a 10 month hiatus from the world of Chez Lark, this past (and last) school year at UW-Madison completely consumed my life. But if there’s anything to warrant breaking radio silence, it is the experience I had today.

It seems that in all of the traveling across the United States that I’ve done in the past four years, I never had the chance to really be a tourist.  I’ve criss-crossed the country numerous times for my photography business: when I first started doing my fine art architectural photographs of LDS temples back in the Fall of 2010, I traveled over 13,000 miles in four months (thank heavens for cheap Southwest flights!!).  In the middle of my 2nd year of grad school.  No joke.  I have no idea how I managed a 4.0 GPA that semester or how I stayed on top of my teaching responsibilities, but I did…  Since then, I’ve racked up another 10,000 miles.  That’s 23,000 miles within my own country, not including hopping across the Pond a few times and traveling around France and Senegal.  But truth be told, I never really got to see very much of the American cities I was in – usually I was in and out in 24 hours.

The front of the George W. Bush Presidential Library

The front of the George W. Bush Presidential Library

Knowing that, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing some of the sights that Dallas has to offer.  Despite being under the gun to get my dissertation proposal revised for my defense that is looming ever larger on the horizon, today I cleared everything off my schedule and gave myself the entire day to explore downtown.  The 6th Floor Museum (the old Texas Book Depository)/Dealey Plaza and the George W. Bush Presidential Library were on the top of my list.  There was a lot to see and learn.  I want to chronicle all of it, but it’s late and I can’t afford to stay up too much longer to write everything down.  Today was filled with deep introspection, and of all the things that I saw and felt, I knew that I absolutely had to write about one thing in particular before I go to bed:

The 9/11 portion of the exhibit was extraordinarily touching, and it really choked me up.

Up until that point, the displays, videos, and photographs followed a fairly predictable chronological pattern from President Bush’s birth to his election as president.  The first few months of his presidency followed the same chronological trajectory and focused on how he began building the foundation for the platform he ran on.  When I was in the section containing the displays about the “No Child Left Behind” program (which I wasn’t really interested in), I heard a couple of docents tell other patrons to prepare for the changes that would take place when they turned the corner into the next area.  I glanced up and to my right and noticed decals on the walls which, beginning with September 1, 2001, broke down events from the President’s schedule in 1-2 day increments.  I thought, “Oh, she’s talking about 9/11 – everyone kind of has an idea of what will be in that room.  What is there to prepare for?”  I went back to reading some of the placards, and a few minutes later I finally made my way to the small breezeway that connects the “No Child Left Behind” and the 9/11 exhibits.

The breezeway is laid out in very short, backwards 7, with the stem growing out from the education section.  At the corner, a large photograph features an enlarged image of a newspaper that shows the Twin Towers on fire.  It’s a familiar image, of course, but it catches your attention and you don’t really look down the rest of the little hallway (if you can call it that).  They totally designed it that way on purpose – its extremely effective because you truly aren’t expecting what comes next . After I finished looking at the picture, I turned to my right and looked directly into the 9/11 section.  This is what I saw:

Steel beams from Ground Zero.  Shrapnel welds them together, forming "twin towers."

Steel beams from Ground Zero. Shrapnel welds them together, forming “twin towers.”

The sight of those two beams literally took my breath away.  I gasped, and immediately a huge lump formed in my throat and my vision blurred with tears.  The similarities between the beams and the silhouettes of the Twin Towers are hard to miss…  Fault of mechanical reproduction, this picture doesn’t do these justice, nor does it adequately convey how touching and emotional it is to see them.  The picture automatically distances the viewer from the visceral power that permeates this room.  Let me tell you that seeing the images of the WTC flash across a TV/computer screen or seeing it in print is entirely different than seeing debris from Ground Zero less than 25 feet from your person.

Close up of the steel girders from Ground Zero

Close up of the steel girders from Ground Zero

I stood there and tried to regain my composure.  It took me a little while.  I then noticed that the walls surrounding the beams were engraved with all of the names of the individuals who died on the 4 airplanes (NYC, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field), everyone who was known to be in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, and the people who died at the Pentagon.  Over 3,000 names are on those walls.  The walls are made of some type of metal (which carries the steel theme throughout the rotunda).  Another lady and I simultaneously reached over and touched them, looking up at all of the names.

The docent came up behind us and placed his hand gently on my shoulder.  (He’s in the dark suit in the previous picture). He said softly, “I’m so glad to see the two of you touch the walls.  It really humanizes the experience in this room and allows you to connect with what happened.  Most people don’t know how to process seeing 3,000 names stretch across the walls, and I’ve seen very few individuals reach out and touch anything in an effort to physically connect with what happened and with those who died.”  His eyes were teary and he gave me a sad smile (and that didn’t make it any easier to swallow the lump in my throat).  Then he pointed out two names and told us the story of who they were and what they were doing when they died.  Then he let us be.

Some of the names of the people who died on 9/11.

Some of the names of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11.

More names of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11

More names of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11

Five TVs were set into the walls and they showed news footage of the attacks, when the towers fell, and the crash sites at the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.  A small theater played videos of President Bush’s visits to the various sites, Laura Bush’s remarks during the memorial service in Pennsylvania, Bush’s addresses to the nation, etc. The image that stayed with me the most from that montage was a spontaneous interview in the Oval Office on September 12 or 13.  A reporter asked him how he was feeling and how he was coping.  He cut her off with a slight gesture of his hand and said, “I’m not thinking about myself, I’m thinking about those who lost their lives and their families.”  The camera zoomed in close to his face as he said something to the effect of “I’m someone who has a job to do, and I am determined to do it.”  He said some other stuff that I can’t recall, but his expression was the most important thing.

I’ve read a lot and heard some individuals express the opinion that he and/or members of his administration was/were in on the attacks or that the attacks didn’t happen the way we think they did.  I have always thought that was ludicrous, and looking at his eyes when he was speaking, I am even more convinced that the conspiracies theories concerning his involvement or prior knowledge aren’t well founded.  His eyes were teary, sad, and exhausted – there was a mixture of anger against the people who attacked us, and with frustration with the situation facing our nation.  But there was also the unmistakable, heightened awareness of a protector and the dogged persistence of a fighter, who moments before had been pounded into the ground but was now standing and staring into the eyes of his opponent, resolved to come back from near defeat and win the fight.

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In all of the podium thumping, vocal emphases placed on certain phrases, and steely gazes directed at the camera/audience during rehearsed speeches that politicians resort to (including him), I have never seen him look like that.   Furthermore, it’s been my experience dealing with individuals (and myself) that one cannot fake that kind of mixture of emotion, indignation, and determination.  I was so taken aback by what I saw that I sat through the video again just to study his body language and his eyes one more time.

It’s really hard for me to put words to what I took away from that…  All in all, I like George W. Bush, the man.  He was never pretentious.  What you saw was what you got (for better or worse) and when I peel back the policy and just look at the man, I have always felt that he was a genuine individual.  That being said, I don’t think President Bush always made wise decisions, and he obviously made mistakes during his administration.  But it’s always easy to criticize from the sidelines with a bemused smirk or an air of intellectual and/or political superiority.  Being eye-to-eye with crises and difficult decisions is a lot different than seeing it from the living room couch without being privy to all of the information at hand.  That applies to whoever is in office, and I admit that I have been guilty of that on occasion.  Newsflash #1: contrary to popular belief, the press isn’t omniscient, either.  Newsflash #2: objective, unbiased reporting no longer exists – Yellow Journalism is still alive and well.  We’ve grown so accustomed to it that we don’t always recognize it.  Anyone who tells you differently isn’t as educated as s/he thinks s/he is.  

So with that, coupled with 20/20 hindsight spanning the last 13 years, I watched his eyes closely during that video.  I guess you can say that after seeing him respond, I gained an added and deeper dimension of respect for him as a man and as the President.

I spent most of my time in the 9/11 exhibit.  It was an opportunity to reflect on what I was doing and what I felt that day.  In September 2001, I was a brand new freshman at BYU – the semester had started only the week before.  When I first gathered that something serious happened in the US that morning, I was eating breakfast in the cafeteria of our dorm.  Usually they had music from the radio piping through the cafeteria, but that morning it sounded more like a radio talk show than the regular mix of easy-listening.  Radio talk shows have always driven me nuts (give me the music!!), so I tuned it out.  But eventually I noticed that people weren’t really eating – they were listening.  I slowly made out something about planes and buildings, and that the President’s safety was at risk.

I inhaled the rest of my food and went out to the lobby to watch the big screen TV before I had to go to class (I had about 10 minutes before I had to leave).  As I made my way over there, I heard people groaning and crying.  Then I rounded the corner and saw the replay of the second plane hit the tower.  I stopped in my tracks and just stared at the TV.  Then the coverage cut to the towers falling, and I felt my stomach plummet.  The girl sitting in a chair next to me started crying hysterically.  Evidently one of her family members worked in the WTC.  Another guy next to me was from New York, and he was trying to call his mother.  I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen, and I cried.  We watched it over and over. Finally I had to go to class – I met my roommate on the hill going up to the Tanner Building (she was coming back from a very early morning class).  She asked me why I was sobbing, and all I could get out was “Planes… buildings… gone.  Gone!”  She hadn’t heard anything about it and didn’t understand and I pointed back to the cafeteria and said, “TV… Planes… Go watch.”

I stumbled my way to class (which happened to be American history).  It was in a small auditorium with a large projector screen, and by the time we all got there, the professor had CNN playing.  We didn’t do anything during class but watch the news.  No one spoke.  We just watched.  And cried.  For 75 minutes.  When the bell rang the professor held us longer and prayed with all of us.  Since it was a Tuesday, and every Tuesday the university has a devotional/forum at 11 am, we filed toward the Marriott Center.  That day the university president was supposed to welcome us to a new school year.  Usually a little less than half of the basketball arena filled up for those meetings, but that day all 20,000 seats were filled.  President Bateman (BYU’s president) didn’t give his remarks.  Instead he prayed with us – somehow he kept his composure – and he told us to go home and call our families.  He said that his office had pulled all of the names of students who were from the NYC area, and he advised them to do all that was possible to contact their families.  He said that university officials would be working their connections in that area of the country to help get as much information about those students’ families.  Then he shared some scriptures about faith and the Atonement of Christ.

The only other class I had that day was Karla Nielson’s interior design class – we’d only had one or two classes with her prior to 9/11.  It was a very small class (18 students instead of her usual 200). I don’t recall exactly what she said, but I remember watching her and listening fixedly.  She of course expressed sadness about what happened, but I remember being impressed with how much faith she articulated.  She said something to the effect of “This is not a time to turn away from and curse God.  This may very well be one of our life ‘Job’ experiences.  Remember Job’s faith and how he turned to the Lord and became closer to Him in difficult trials.”  She gave her full lecture that day – which, as I have learned while getting to know her very well over the past 13 years, is just like her.  Take time to mourn and re-ground your faith.  Then get back to work.  Typical Karla.

I’m pretty sure that I spent time with my sisters that night – and we probably called our parents.  But I don’t remember for sure.  Thursday the 13th, my American history professor showed a movie that he had found somewhere of videos taken from airplanes from various places in the USA, and Neil Diamond’s America (with extra bass) played in the background.  We cheered and cheered (cried).  We watched it again.  And we cheered again.

I remember that during the weeks and months that followed, there was a greater sense of patriotism and pride in our country.  There was also a greater outpouring of faith and belief in God. People were kinder to one another, and for a while, people focused on family rather than their paycheck.  Congress came together and got things done.  Hopefully we can regain that as a country – but let’s hope it doesn’t take such drastic events to help us get there again.

9/11 affected all of us in one way or another.  I didn’t lose a loved one in those attacks.  But the attacks and the subsequent military action meted out against Afghanistan and Iraq did directly affect the lives of my family.  Like so many others families, some of my immediate family members either enlisted in the military very soon after 9/11 in an immediate response to the needs of our national security, and all of the service members of my family were deployed overseas.  I am very grateful for their desire to serve, their dedication, and the many sacrifices they made to help ensure our freedoms.

I hear you, we all hear you, and the people who knocked down these buildings [WTC] will hear ALL of us soon!

The bullhorn President George W. Bush used while speaking to rescue workers at Ground Zero. A man from the back yelled, “George, we can’t hear you!” He grabbed the bullhorn and responded, “I hear you, we all hear you, and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear ALL of us soon!”

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The American flag that flew over the White House on 9/11

Hundreds of artifacts were on display in the 9/11 section of the museum – unfortunately there were too many to photograph, and even if I could, not all of them were under enough lighting (no flash photography), so they wouldn’t have come out right anyway.  Just like the focus of his presidency shifted after the attacks, the direction of the rest of the museum’s exhibits changed from that point on.  Instead of progressing chronologically the presentations focused on issues and initiatives, and they drew from all 8 years of his time in office to form a conglomerate of decision points and the subsequent consequences.  All of the exhibits were phenomenally done, and I plan on going back next weekend to see the rest of the museum and library.  I will write more about the other sections in a later post.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the 9/11 exhibit is a must see.  If nothing else it gives everyone a chance to physically connect with what happened.  If my experiences are like everyone else’s, it also gives rise to introspection and an opportunity to determine whether the resolutions we made and the priorities we set during our healing process are still in force.  I, for one, have some course corrections to make… In the end, today was an emotional day for me.

I’m proud to be an American.  May God continue to bless America.

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Reflections

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?

He can’t.

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.

Touba

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.

Khadim Bousso

Khadim Bousso

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.

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Khadija

Khadija

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.

It's enormous - I couldn't even get all of it in my shot

It’s enormous – I couldn’t even get all of it in my shot

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The entrance to the room outside of Serigne Touba’s tomb

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There aren’t any clocks on the buildings in Touba. They tell the time by this sun dial – which was laid by Khadim’s family several years prior to the construction of the mosque

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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.

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Cheikh

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Khadija

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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.

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Khadim's family

Khadim’s family

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.

Wait! I Know That Young Woman!

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That’s what Paul Thompson said to his wife, Marba, as they watched my mother, then a 20 year-old BYU co-ed, stop to pet a dog outside of her apartment complex.  Yet he’d never actually met her…  Paul and Marba had … Continue reading

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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.

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Sociologist Mamadou Wade, the imam, the spokesman

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