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Mouton

Tabaski

The day of reckoning has come and gone, and now that I'm on the other side of it, I find myself not really knowing what to say. Was it good? Was it bad? Call me a fence-sitter, but I'm going with both--allow me to elaborate. The day before Tabaski was pretty much like any other Sunday, with a few exceptions. Dogo and I got home at 5 that morning from going out the night before*, said hi to my Yaay as she got up to pray, went to bed, slept till 11, were fed breakfast, I took a nap, I washed my underwear, by hand, mind you--but then, when I went to go hang it on the line outside, I found Dogo washing a mouton, who looked altogether bewildered by what was happening. Dogo looked over at me and shrugged. "The last bath, huh?" I shrugged back. Can't argue with that.

Later that night I was sitting with my Yaay watching the mouton out in front of the house--I was watching the way the light was flickering across the back of one little one. He and another baby were happy and hopping around, but his hair was jet black so it reflected differently than it did on the others. Most of them are white--but he was all black except for a spot on his nose. Yaay was talking to me about the next morning, how at 9 they were going to pray, and then the Iman was going to kill his mouton, and then we could kill ours. "How many?" I ask. "Four!" she says. "It's a good year!" A good year indeed.

Later that evening, I was in the kitchen helping her make dinner--something that involved an elaborate explanation on how to properly make french fries** ("Lala! Look, look! You have to double dip them, so they get crispy!"), when the mouton outside start raising hell. They were baa-ing and baa-ing like nobody's business, way more than normal, and that's really saying something. Yaay looks at me with her eyebrows raised. "They're crying about tomorrow," she says. I ask her, "How do they know?" She shakes her head. "They know."

She's right--come tomorrow morning, every mouton in Senegal was quaking on their spindley little legs.  I got up early so as not to miss anything--but I didn't need to. I was caught up only in a whirlwind of cleaning that lasted until about 9:30 or 10:00. Then, and I don't know how they knew or who gave a special signal or what happened, but everyone simaltaneously started filtering outside. There was a pit dug in the sand just past our gate where they brought the first mouton to--they keep his legs caught together and his head stretched out, his neck just over the pit. It takes three men to hold him down, even though he's not fighting too much. Dogo has a huge knife, almost sword-like, and he measures where to cut. The rest of us--my Yaay, Faatu, Mamie, Mareme and I--stand behind them. It's not a celebration, but I don't know if somber is the right word either. The air is charged with waiting. The first one goes quickly, but his blood is too red in the pit and it hurts my eyes to look at it. It's too bright. I don't watch all of it but they do, and sometimes Yaay reaches out for my arm and says, "It's not pretty, it's not pretty." No, I think, dying never is. The next two struggle and I have to look away--I look instead at the road past the mouton yard. The breeze is ruffling the leaves in the tree. A car drives by. A dog is curled up against the curb. The sun is making shadows move against the ground. The whistling noise that's coming from the mouton's cut throats and the click of their hooves against the cement as they kick away their last moments in life are suddenly very far away. I listen to the birds--they don't know not to chirp today, so they chirp away. Mareme leans against my legs. I pick her up, and even though it's hot her weight is oddly comforting. For one of the first times in my life, I feel old.

It doesn't take them long to get through all of them--four in total. As soon as they finish outside, they bring the carcasses into the house and in about 30 seconds flat the courtyard has turned into a full on butcher shop. I go back outside with my Yaay, who is washing the blood off the concrete just outside the gate. I think of A Tale of Two Cities and blood running in the streets, and I think I understand. Bucket after bucket is sloshed out and scrubbed down. I t's surprisingly efficient and soon no trace remains other than the pit of blood, slowly congealing in the sun. By the end of the day it will be a purpley-black, and they'll scoop it out in one hunk with a shovel. It was a little too much like jell-o for comfort. While I'm leaning against the gate, trying to avoid having to watch the moutons being skinned inside, another family comes outside their gate and starts sacrificing their mouton. I look away, and inadvertently right at another mouton: this one is already gone, skinned, and being strung up to be quartered. Oh come on, I think. So I go back inside--if I'm going to watch mouton being butchered, I might as well watch my own. As soon as I turn back into the gate, Faatu, my older, intimidating sister catches me. "Lala," she says, and she starts again in broken English, which is what they do sometimes when they really want me to understand something. "You see that if we don't have the mouton, we don't have people. It's a sacrifice and we are thanking them." I understand--I've been fortunate enough to grow up knowing that all life comes at the expense of other life. I think of my Dad at home, saying a prayer for every successful hunt and for every animal we are able to eat. It makes sense to me, so I send a prayer of thanks up to my God--maybe he'll translate for Allah, let him know Lala says jerejeff.

Once the mouton are skinned, I find myself recognizing a familiar smell--but one that I associate with cold garages in the winter, with white butcher paper and sharpie-d dates on masking tape in my Dad's totally illegible handwriting. Now we are quartering, but they don't cut it into anything I know, no backstraps or flanksteak. All I know is there are four men with knives flying, and three huge plastic tubs that are filling up with piece after piece of raw meat and bones. Then in a weird turn of events, I find myself elbow deep in mouton liver, peeling off a thin layer of perititanium from the spongy meat, cutting off strings of fat like I was born to do it. Tabaski is truly a family affair--what's the saying? The family that butchers together, stays together? Something like that.

We end up barbecuing over an open flame all afternoon--I'm put in charge of barbecuing the liver with Mareme. Sometimes, in life, you find yourself asking, "What should barbecued liver look like?" And sometimes, in life, there's a language barrier, so you end up asking, "What color when it's at the end?" And sometimes the response is, "Brown." And you have to look at your four enormous mouton liver, roasting merrily over a fire, and think, well, it already is brown. It started brown. So I can't really go wrong, right?

Sure.

Regardless of how terrible of a barbecuer of liver I am, it turned out delicious. I've never snacked on so much liver in my life--not that I make a habit of it at home, although I might start. Faatu does the ribs next, I'm happy as a pig in mud, knawing on a mouton bone like it's my last. They all laugh. "Lala! 30 minutes ago you were scared! Now you're happy!" It's all fun and games until one of the men walks back in with three skinned mouton heads, eyes and horns left intact, and drops them into the tub next to my chair. Well, at least I know it's fresh.

The atmosphere was actually very reminiscient of an outdoor family picnic during the summer, except there's also a lot of raw meat being cut and around, but pretty soon I get used to that. I'm feeling good until my host mom sends me out with a plate of food for the Lebanese couple who run the grocery down the street--I have to walk through the now empty mouton yard, and I get the eerie feeling that I'm walking through a graveyard.

The next four times she sends me out I just feel hot. Charity is an important part of Tabaski though--throughout the day, kids come into the courtyard with plastic bags and Yaay would grab a handful of raw meat and put it in, saying Diweniti, baal ma aq.

After another intense round of cleaning, in which the floor and walls are scrubbed down multiple times, we nap to take off the edge of the mouton feast. Then I am dressed in my Tabaski finest, eliciting oohs and aaahs from my family and a hiss from every Senegalese male in a 3-mile radius, and we go to visit family and friends. I'm sent off to visit Merrill***, who lives not far away through the maze of alleys between the houses. We meet up with our friend Rachel, and then we visit our Senegalese friends--Tafa is at his house and we say hi to his whole family, then we walk to Bachir's and say hi to him and Barra, then it's back to my house to get Dogo and so everyone can say hi to Yaay.

The day ends on a hysterical note--Rachel, Merrill and I are sitting in the living room of my house when all hell breaks loose. A baby mouton comes barrelling through the house, bleating like mad and hopping around like crazy until he finally gets himself wedged between a chair and a mirror while we're doubled over in laughter, not even making an effort to help. It was the perfect end to a rollercoaster of a day. You'll have to excuse my cliche, but it's true.

xoxo, Lala

*Don't judge me. They don't start going until 2 or 3, so 5 is really actually pretty reasonable to come home. But you know you're in a Muslim country when the call to prayer coming from the Mosques is when you know you should go home. **Everyone, and I mean everyone, eats french fries here--some families eat them every night for dinner. Huge deal. Probably could count as  a food group. Also, if I may borrow a line from Alanis--isn't it ironic? I learn how to make french fries in Africa. Will wonders never cease. ***I've yet to meet a Senegalese person who can say my friend Merrill's name. It's endlessly entertaining to hear them try, although my host mom has at this point given up and now refers to her as "your big friend" because she's somewhat tall. Sometimes she throws in "your big RED friend" when she has a sunburn. This is also endlessly entertaining.

My City Was Gone

Since our return to Dakar, life has once again circled back to my favorite subject: the rams, or as I prefer, the mouton. I finally got the species confusion cleared up--turns out they are, in fact, sheep; they just don't grow massive amounts of hair like sheep in the U.S. do. Why? Because they all would die from heat exhaustion. Thank you, Charles Darwin. I would really like to not talk about the moutons anymore--I would like to talk about all the fun and exciting things I've done this week, like go to the beach and eat at a fabulous new Ethiopian restaurant and stumble upon an African poetry slam. But I can't talk about those things without somehow touching upon the ever-present moutons. They are everywhere, and not only that, they're all anyone can talk about.

I started noticing their encroaching presence on our way back to Dakar from Kedougou, every so often along otherwise deserted stretches of road would suddenly and inexplicably be hundreds of moutons, all crowded together in a field. Sometimes there would be a handful of people there too, watching out for them. When we asked what was going on, Bouna, our program assistant, tossed out nonchalantly, "Oh, they're for Tabaski--soon, people from all over Senegal will go those mouton farms and then bring them back into the cities to resell them to the people there." It didn't take long for Bouna's words to prove true: twenty minutes inside the city limits and we were already seeing every available square foot in Dakar occupied by a mouton vendor. They're like christmas tree farms for sheep. It got personal when I found myself wading through a sea of at least 30 moutons pegged in the yard outside my house--my host mom had to come and instruct me in the art of grabbing the horns of the mouton and tossing them out of your way before you get a headbutt to the thigh. My city is drowning. In sheep.

No one here is looking to be rescued though, we're embracing the tidal wave, if not encouraging. A few nights ago, we had a conversation about Tabaski that left me mildly incredulous and of course, laughing, as most of my interactions here do. We're sitting around the dinner bowl--the rest of my family jabbering away in rapid-fire Wolof while I was busy carefully trying to extract every bone from my hunk of fish, when suddenly the conversation turned to me. "Lala!" my host mom barks, turning even the softest French words into stone with the Wolof accent. "We're going to kill a sheep for Tabaski!" "...you're going to kill a sheep for Tabaski?" I say, which is how most of our conversations go--me repeating the last part of whatever they say as a question in the hopes that it passes for holding up my end of the dialogue. "In the house!" she says. "...in the house?" I repeat, and they laugh. "Waaw!* Dogo's going to kill a sheep in the house for Tabaski! That's the tradition!" "...Dogo's going to kill a sheep in the house." "Yep! That's Tabaski! You're going to take so many photos, and then you're going to bring them to your American Mother!"

Got it.

That isn't, of course, all there is to Tabaski--it's the biggest holiday on the Islamic calendar and they sacrifice rams in honor of the story of Abraham, who so loved Allah that he was willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael**. Allah, seeing Abraham and Ishamel's devotion, provided a ram instead--and Tabaski was born. It's a seriously holy day, but from what I gather, it's also a huge party--after the rams are sacrificed, the women cook all day and prepare a huge feast, and then everyone goes out and brings the leftover meat to relatives, friends, and then finally, in a generous gesture of tolerance, the Christians. The true name of this festival is Eid al-Adha, in case you want to look it up, but locally it's Tabaski.

Preparations have been intense. Everyone in my family has had new outfits made--I'd been with my family for a week when my host mom bought fabric and brought me to the tailor to have my dress made. Look for me in the pink and blue. The whole house was repainted a few days ago, the walls so whitewashed they shone. I found out yesterday that first, we would not be sacrificing my nemisis and the blocker of the bathroom door--we would be buying not one, not two, but three other mouton to sacrifice instead. In fact, when I asked whether we were sacrificing our resident mouton, Dogo turned to me gravely, and said, quite seriously, "Lala, of course not. He's a part of the family. That's my little brother." But then, inexplicably, he disappeared a few days ago, and with a little digging I found out that they had sold our mouton to some other family for Tabaski. I'm back to square one in terms of understanding what's going on. Typical.

And if the mouton competitions weren't enough--although those have gotten intense, with my whole family crowded around the TV arguing about which is the most beautiful--commercials have been popping up everywhere advertising "Win a Free Mouton!" and "Thousands of Moutons to Give Away!", promoting all kinds of products. The government sponsors a program, which I found out about through a billboard over the VDN, that guarantees a mouton for every family that can't afford it normally. Looks like moutons are taking precedence over electricity. Priorities.

It hasn't been all bad though. Saturday morning I spent an hour sitting outside the house with my host mom, watching the mouton. Every so often she would jab an elbow towards me, point at a particularly interesting mouton, and crack up. Her favorite was one that had fallen asleep while chewing. It's the little things.

xoxo, Lala

*"Waaw" is how you say "yes" in Wolof. It's pronounced wow. For a solid three weeks I thought everyone was constantly impressed with each other. Big disappointment. **Huge lost in translation moment for me--the first time they explained it I thought they were saying they used to sacrifice children but now use moutons. Happy I got that cleared up!

Country Roads

As always, I'm at a loss as to where to start the story of my last week and a half--but rather than use an African proverb to aid me this time (remember slowly, slowly catch the monkey in the bush? or if you prefer, ndank, ndank, goro moor ci jaay yap), I'll turn to a oft-repeated quote from a book I just devored, Cutting for Stone. "Begin at the beginning, and go until the end, the King said, gravely, then stop."* We boarded our great white beast early Friday morning--it's about a 13-hour drive to Kedougou, our final destination, but happily we were saving that particular misery for the return trip. On our way down, we were breaking it into two parts, apparently it's not safe to drive at night, the roads are bad, and there have to be some kind of labor laws for our poor driver. Well actually now that I think about it, there probably isn't. Anyway, we stopped a humane halfway (ish) distance between Dakar and Kedougou, in Tambacounda---we stayed at an Auberge that would have been forgetable if not for the in-ground pool, a rarity here that we took full advantage of. Much to the delight and extreme entertainment of the staff, we played an intense game of marco polo well into the night, stopping only to eat dinner at a white napkin table laid out under the stars. Before you get too jealous, I'll add that eating outside meant we attracted every bug in a 30 mile radius, so not only was I covered in a thick layer of repellent but I also dodged more than one unbelievably huge cockroach-esque insect.

The next morning we headed further south still to Kedougou, hurtling down red dirt roads that made the bus shudder everytime we thunked over the occasional pothole or rut, and by occasional I mean constant. Our driver was weaving through the worst of them like a drunk on the third day of a binge, but it still made for a rough ride. Luckily the view outside more than compensated--the rainy season had every living thing climbing all over each other in their eagerness to finally grow. It was verdant. It was living. It was a sight for my sore, Oregon-deprived eyes. These country roads were taking me home.

The natural wonder tour continued once we arrived in Kedougou. After being installed in a peaked, thatched roof hut at Auberge Nieriko, which featured a red christmas light bulb over our double bed and a fantastic purple mosquito net, we hit the trail. We started at the bottom of a mountain in a tiny Bedik village, and then commenced the ardous climb up. It was pretty much a straight-shot to the top, and there were enough tree roots and boulders criss-crossing the trail that it wasn't too bad. Of course, as we huffed and puffed our way up, the village kids would race past us and back, and then come and ask if we were tired. We stopped at the top in another, tinier village--this one established at the highest point so they could watch for intruders, and as we learned from the village Chief, send the killer bees out of the sacred tree to "dissuade" the enroaching Malian people from coming any further. Needless to say, I'm tryna stay on this guy's good side. I'd hate to have to be dissuaded.

Our glory was not in the killer bee sacred tree, however, it was higher yet--one of the local boys brought us to the base of what could have easily passed for Pride Rock. Have I mentioned that I love the Lion King? I think I floated to the top. Actually I climbed, squeezed, and heaved my way over so many boulders--I'm not going to shortchange myself here. But as always, it was worth it. Once we made it, the view was breathtaking in every sense of the word, and I'm not just saying that because I'm kind of out of shape now and the hike up hurt me. I thought I had seen some wide open spaces. I thought I had seen big skies and plains as far as the eye could see. But I have never seen anything like this. It was horizon like God intended horizon to be--flung out so far that it looked like it was moving, like the sky was rushing out to meet it and it was in a hurry to get there. It was vast beyond vast--there was no interruption in the land, except for the barely visible wrinkle of huts. We stayed through sunset, even though it made our guides nervous, twilight is when the spirits come out. But we had to watch the sun say her slow good-bye to this side of our world, had to watch her blow a peachy-red kiss goodnight.

Downside of the sunset--had to descend in the dark. Of course we didn't go prepared with headlamps, let's be realistic. We only brought a healthy sense of urgency, fear, and in my case, an imagination that could only recall the scene from Lion King where Scar sings Be Prepared with a chorus of ravenous hyenas.

As if my Pride Rock moment wasn't enough, we headed the next day for a waterfall that was surely the inspiration for the scene in which Simba and Nala frolick together to the dulcet tones of Elton John--by the way, I could feel the love that night. My excitement was only heightened by the hour and a half I spent hunched in the trunk of a jeep--the nausea from our bumpy ride only added to the experience. The hike in to Cascade Dindefalo wasn't nearly as difficult as our previous hike; more of a nature walk through the shadows of trees and the crazy-straw loops of vines hanging from them. SEveral times we crossed a meandering stream--not even deep enough to cover the tops of our shoes, but I was still surprised when suddenly the forest parted and we were faced with a staggering rock face and the water that cascaded over it and down into a pool below. For a waterfall of significant height, I expected more noise. It wasn't until I swam over to it taht I could hear the thunder that I associated so strongly with waterfalls. We couldn't resist swimming, even though it was at our own risk. The water was cool and deep, and behind the the falls were wide, smooth ledges that we sat on, our feet dangling into the water below. There was farm more fun t obe had jumping in and out of the pool through the falls though, and staring up at the dizzying height of the falls, floating flat on our backs, or swimming underneath the surface of where water hit water, feeling it hammer your skin in a way no jacuzzi ever could--it was hard to stay in one place for too long. We tore ourselves away from our Indiana Jones-esque paradise eventually, spurred on mostly by hunger and two snakes spotted in the water, but it wasn't easy.

The ride home left me exhilirated rather than sick--I hitched my ride in the back of a pick-up, standing in the wind as the truck flew down the now familiar red dirt road. My skin was tight from the water and sun, and I could feel dust gatherin the creases around my squinted eyes, and my hair was stiff from sweat and dirt and God only knows what else, but I was so deliriously happy that these things of being were rendered inconsequential.

The next day we headed for the villages. Minutes before we stepped off the bus, the sky turned a steely gray and started pouring rain--so when we arrived we literally hit the ground running, cauhgt up in the perfunctory gaggle of village children. We were pulled, in about 30 soaking wet seconds, into a dark hut, adn greeted enthusiastically by our village chief and the host Father of my good friend Alexa. We would learn later that he was the proud husband of four wives, and the proud father of many, many children. My host father, Souleymane, was one of them. He had four wives, but all the extended family lived together in the same compound. The compound was a sort of fenced in yard of sorts, ringed by a number of huts used either for cooking or seleping. Every other aspect of life took place outside. WE spent our first night being entertained by our newfound friends--I was clung to immediately by Aissa, my 9-year-old namesake and one of Souleyman's daughters. She, with the other girls, played endlessly in our hair, braiding and rebraiding, and singing songs to us. We, in turn, sang songs to them, by the time we left they were masters of the Itsy Bitsy Spider, hand motions and all.

What I could do is go on forever** about the pople here, teh dynamics of the relationships in my adopted family, the fleeting vignettes of life that I had the privilege of witnessing. I want to describe everything, I have so much to tell. I want to talk about the incredible work ethic of the women, I want to talk about how the survival of their families rest on their shoulders. I want to tell you about the serious eyes of a little boy who cried when another tried to wrench his hand away from mine, and I want to tell you about the little boy who cried when his older brother held him out near us. I want to tell you about how my heart went out to my little host brother, who at 5-years-old, should not have rotting teeth. I want to tell you about Moustapha, the fattest, happiest baby I've ever seen. I want to talk about how refreshingly beautiful my surroundings were, how everywhere you looked was green and lush and growing--over paths, huts, fences. I want to talk about how two young boys look climbing a tree, their skinny arms backlit high against the sky.

But alsa, I do not have the time. I'm caught back in the riptide that is the pace of life in my beloved Dakar--I sometimes catch myself yearning for the way time sort of trickled by in Badou Kandi, how two hours spent peeling stems off a bowl of plants with my host mom felt like I'd accomplished something that day. Much of my time was spent sitting with a crowd of kids, talking to Alexa while cracking thousands of peanuts, and being pulled along by Aissa on journeys that only she knew the purpose of.

Of course, I get over that nostalgia pretty quick--we go to the beach on a free afternoon, go get ice cream on our way to a documentary showing and meet and greet with the film director at the French Institute, I go for a run on the cliffs along the water's edge, and I"m reminded that life in Dakar is still a fairytale after all.

Actually, all I really have to do is think about the breakfast we were served every morning in the village, a combination of millet balls and the unmistakable smell of rancid milk, and any lingering nostalgia is quickly banished.

Our last day in the village concluded with a hundreds strong good-bye party as we got on the bus, leaving so many little hands waving and yelling in our wake. It was bittersweet, but I knew I was headed for a shower that would take place under running water and not with a bucket, outside and with only a short fence between me and the main path. Although that wasn't without its merits--being naked as a jaybird out in the wilds while simultaneously trying to minimize accidental flashing and trying to get clean certainly added a layer of excitement to my shower that I've yet to repeat.

Our last day in Kedougou was spent hiking up another mountain with more spectacular views and another older than time village that, this time, boasted what easily is the biggest Baobob I've ever seen in my life. It was so huge that it wasn't comprehensible--it took me a solid walk around it to grasp the neormity of the mass of life that we were dealing with here. It took all 23 of us with our arms stretched, hands locked, shoulder blades popping, to reach around.

We concluded with a visit to the local market, where we bought honey (I'm guessing it's made from African killer bees--go with it), and indigo, a locally dyed fabric that is somehow a shade of blue I've only ever seen before in the night sky. Sound poetic? It is. It also sort of turns your hands blue when you handle it a lot, which I found out the hard way.

Then we got on the bus at 6 in the morning and didn't get off until 8 at night, I'm not great at math but I know that adds up to a long time in the bus. And now I'm back in Dakar, with my family who missed me and told me how my host sister here cried every night I was gone, and with my host mom who keeps telling me I'll be Senegalese when I gain 3 more kilos. Life is good.

xoxo, Lala

*This is actually a passage from Alice in Wonderland. My other favorite quote, as my family in the US will tell you, is this: "Alice came to a fork in the road.  "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat. "I don't know," Alice answered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter." Thank you Lewis Carrol. **I have decided that I will, in fact, try and go on forever about my time here. I've been given a month to design a project and research a subject, so I chose, more or less, myself. I never said I wasn't conceited. In fact, while we were on our trip, a friend, quite authentically, coined the term Lalaland. And it has stuck. But really, I'm going to try and write a book. This is not a drill.

 

L.E.S. Artistes

This past week I've been working on my back-up plan, in case the unemployed English  major thing doesn't work out--so far I've found my calling in bronze-working. I tried batik, but mostly I just splashed hot wax on myself and everyone around me, so I had to give up that dream. We were in a government-sponsored village of artisans in the middle of Dakar. Our bronze workshop was a little ways outside the main village, so we walked down this wide red dirt road--past the woodcarvers and the recycled art garden, and to what looked like a barn without sides. Out front was an enormous bronze hand, lying discarded along the path---next to one open-side was a huge, unfinished bronze statue of the torso of a man, his face looming large over us. There was blood painted running out of his nose and eyes and his mouth was open in a yell, and a perfectly circular hole under one arm for a tamana, or talking drum, that was going to be added later. It was artistic and angst-y, and like most artistic and angst-y things, I didn't really like to look at it.

The bronze workers (there were three men--one old and crazy and very Rafiki-like, one who literally could have passed for any age but who I think was maybe in his early 30s, and one who I thought was 12 but turned out to be 23....embarrassing) packed us in around a metal table with a big square cut out in the middle for this burning hot grill of burquettes where they heated up these hot metal poker rods. Then they put slabs of wax in front of us--it smelled like honeycombs exactly, and that was the extent of our initial instruction. So first I made some shapeless nothings, then I brainstormed at least 70 different things that would be impossible to sculpt (I thought I was onto something with a candelabra, but then I remembered that someday I would be flying home, inshallah*, and when I made that trip I'd have to make it with 50 pounds or less. Needless to say, the candelabra got the ax. Thanks United.) I settled on crafting a bird's nest, which wasn't that difficult but necessitated a long and elaborate skit on what I was trying to make, Rafiki the bronze-worker and I were not jiving when it came to my vision. After many attempts to describe the nest of a bird (which included flapping around, pretending to sit on some eggs, and shouting THE HOUSE OF A BIRD, which in hindsight,  might have hurt more than helped), I came to understand that the birds here make a different kind of nest than I was making, and then we were able to settle our creative differences. I think I'm going to either use it as a door stop or paperweight depending on how heavy it comes out. We'll see.

Then I made a Christmas ornament of Africa, because Lord knows I'm not buying that off the street here---thanks Islam. And then I carefully crafted a mini-goat/ram** statue, in honor of the one at my house, with whom I share an ever-evolving and very complicated relationship.

Sidenote: last night the mouton caused an uproar at my house. Everyone got all excited because he somehow pulled an empty box of feminine hygiene products out of the trash (which I have never, coincidentally, seen--they're hiding it from me). It's not that he was eating cardboard, because that's a pretty normal occurrence, and usually they just rip it into smaller pieces for him instead of taking it away, but apparently there was plastic on this box. Cardboard, fine. Plastic, bad? You learn something new everyday.

But I digress. Back to bronzing. So after my somewhat rocky start, we settled into things, and after some more skits we came to understand the process that our wax sculptures would undergo. We were creating bronze sculptures using the lost wax theory--basically you make the sculptures by molding hot wax, and then   around the wax you pour a plaster/concrete mix. Once that hardens, you put the plaster mold into a smokin' hot brick oven and let the wax melt out. After the wax is all gone, you pour the smokin' hot bronze into the mold you've created out of the plaster. Voila. Bronze statue. Amateur hour is over.

I might have also found my calling in professional dancing--what I lack in skills I make up for in uncoordinated, white enthusiasm. We were being instructed by three Griot siblings--Tutti, the sister and dancer, the brother, who had a lisp and an unpronounceable name, but who was quite the djembe drummer, and another brother whose identity also escaped me but who wore dark aviator sunglasses the whole time and beat the sabar like nobody's business. Tutti reminded me of a a cartoon character, but I don't know which one, and I couldn't quite tell you why--but her face was so animated and her body so atypical for a dancer that there was something altogether unbelievable about it. She was fun though, she rarely talked unless she was singing or yelling at her brothers, and she didn't really smile that much--mostly she just got in front of us and started dancing, and we started following along and praying we could keep up.

We were at a studio in the National Theater of Sorano, but we were still shufflin' around in about six years' worth of dirt on the floor and narrowly avoiding several missing floorboards and some very suspicious weak spots. But the dance itself was intense---we spent a lot of time in big, wild motion. It was, more than anything else, liberating to be caught in enough pounding rhythm and exuberant movement that language barriers and heat rash stopped mattering. Well. The heat rash became an issue once we stopped moving, and you were instantly so sweaty it was like being submerged underwater. Not even like getting out of a pool wet--because then you're in the process of drying off. Submerged in sweat.

But it was fun and life is good, and my host family still likes me (or just likes laughing at me, but you know, whatever works), and today I washed my underwear, and I'm at a fancy toubab mall right on the water using the internet and catching the breeze, and tomorrow we're leaving for a cross-country adventure into the Southern part of Senegal to go see us some wildlife and tribesmen, taking on what every comes our way with a sense of humor and (fingers crossed) a strong stomach.

xoxo, Lauren***

*a word on Inshallah--it means God Willing, and you say it everytime you talk about the future. I find it wildly unnerving. What do you mean I'll see you tomorrow, Inshallah? What do you think is going to happen to me? **It's up for debate on the species of this fine creature. Is it a goat? Is it a ram? No one knows for sure. ***Really you should just call me Lala because everyone does now, including all the other Americans. I don't think anyone, including the administration, could tell you what my real name is. Lala's takin' over.

Teranga

So the Senegalese have this thing called Teranga, which doesn't translate directly but is basically an all encompassing word for the attitude of sharing that defines Senegalese culture. Now, although this sounds like the stuff of tourist brochures--which coincidentally, it is, I'm starting to find that they're not just talking the talk. For example, one of my first nights with my host family, Dogo brought me to his friend's house, which was great--they were all wonderful people and eager to get to know me, and they fed me something delicious. I thought that was it, until Dogo later explained that there was actually a meeting going on upstairs. The group that was gathering there was an association of women in the neighborhood of Mermoz (which would explain why there was a parade of beautifully dressed women coming in the door and up the stairs one right after another and why there was so much going on in the kitchen--I was prepared to chalk that up to me just not knowing what was normal and what wasn't. It happens a lot.) But it turns out that these women collect a pool of money at the first of every month and then, depending on what happens to each family during the course of that month, they take a vote and decide who the money should go to. And whatever family receives the money that month has a huge feast as a thank you to the other families--that's where I come in. Apparently they also thank stray, friend-of-friend Toubabs. Dogo asked me if we had anything like that in the United States--just neighbors helping neighbors. And I said, sort of.* Because it's true, my family would help another family in need, if the opportunity arose. I know my parents have cooked meals for a family who is sick, or has had some tragedy befall them. But we also have a culture based on pride, and the belief that an individual should be able to provide for themselves, and a lot of times that gets in the way. Imagine the variety of problems that would arise if such an association were created in the U.S. There would be blood, egos would clash, someone would argue over who deserved it more. My first night in my homestay, my host mom told me, "We don't have a lot of money, we don't have a lot of things. But we have our families, and we have solidarity."

In Senegal, in my neighborhood here, bad things can happen month to month. Humility is a way of life, asking for help isn't second nature. That's what they start with. One night, after dinner, there was a man who came in through the front gate and after speaking with the family in Wolof, Fafey (the maid), brought him into the kitchen. This seemed normal. When I asked who it was**, they told me, basically, "Oh, he's from the neighborhood. He doesn't have anything, he doesn't have a job, so we give him what we don't eat." Leftovers are a foreign concept. They asked me what would happen if a man did that in the U.S. And I had to think about it, because I just don't think anyone would come knock on my front door to ask for food. So I told them that doesn't happen, but we have bums--but it's becoming a problem. Yesterday there was a little boy who came to the house and my host mom gave him a little bag. When I asked what it was, they told me,  "It's medicine for his head, he has a fever. His parents don't have enough money so we give it to him."

I don't mean to say that either system is better or worse, they are merely different. The Senegalese don't have welfare, charities, free clinics, foster care or any other kind of institutionalized fall back. They just have one person looking out for another person, for their fellow man--and I'm sure, a lot of people fall through the cracks. That's a fact of life. But I think what the take-away for me here is to remember always that a person is still a person, whether they can feed themselves or not. I like that the Senegalese are walking the Teranga walk. And although I appreciate what they're doing, it's been especially important for me to look at not only their culture, but my own. It has been so interesting to see the American mindset through the lens of a completely different perspective. I don't find it unsettling, I don't think we're wrong. We're just different. I've been working hard on being an active observer, but not being judgmental. So far, so good.

xoxo, Lauren

*It's impossible to know what I actually said in French. I'm finding that I often string together loosely related words and phrases but say it with enough confidence that it sounds like it could be right. I'm thinking I'll just go with it--my poor brain is so on the fritz with language that at this point it's a miracle anything is coming out at all. **I do know that in this instance, instead of asking the very simple, who is that? I said, where is that? I didn't realize until later when I was falling asleep but it made me laugh. My poor, poor host family. I think they think I'm the biggest idiot on the planet and frankly I just do not blame them.