Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's been a while.

But I was inspired to write this 3-page essay... this is the first draft. I'll be sending it to FLV later. I just felt the need to shout from the rooftops after the christmas festival last month.

My proudest moment in my entire life was this past FLV Midwinter festival 2010-2011.

On January 9, 2010, I left the country to spend four months studying abroad in Senegal, west Africa. The night before my flight left I spent with my family and a bunch of friends I’d seen just a week and a half earlier at the Midwinter Festival 2009-2010, eating good food and chatting and singing songs (to keep me distracted so I couldn’t panic). I felt so grateful to have that community to support me and send me off, and spent much of the plane ride thinking of all the stories I’d bring back to share.
As part of my study abroad program, I was placed in a homestay family almost immediately. Although in classes I heard other American students talking about having trouble knowing how to act around their new families, feeling like they were in the way around the house, I had no trouble finding things to do- the key seemed to be asking, “How can I help?” The question was not whether a foreign guest would be allowed to do dishes her first night in a new country, the question was where my family kept the soap. It made sense to me to do chores, help out, or clean up after dinner. The culture shock was much less jarring for me, I feel, because I’ve grown up trying new foods, learning about new cultures, and actively participating in whatever is happening at the moment. It’s because I’ve grown up at Folklore Village.
I thought about Folklore Village at least once a week while I was in Senegal. One of the first things my group learned in orientation was about the traditional “ataaya” tea ceremony, a very specific hour-long process that instantly put me in mind of the Ostfriesland tea that (just two weeks before!) I had at the Midwinter Festival. I made up my mind to bring back a little ataaya pot and glasses and paid close attention after every meal to how the tea was prepared- I knew I wanted to bring this tradition back to the midwest and couldn’t wait explain all the little rules and customs I was learning.
Before arriving on-site, I had applied for an internship in “arts and culture, music, theater, or dance”, not knowing what kind of internship would be possible or if I could find an organization that would let me learn about the interests I expressed on the application. I was placed in a small town, Toubacouta, with a dance and drumming “Troupe Allah Laké” (a rough translation would be “God wills it”). Though I quickly informed them I had no background in this kind of dance, after a week of watching their performances and four rehearsals under my belt I was given a costume to match the other girls and had my first performance. I realized that because I couldn’t remember all the steps, I had to keep an eye on the women in front of me so I could copy what they were doing instantly, and try new dance steps in front of an audience, without hesitation.
This is where I have Folklore Village to thank: for giving me the practice standing behind someone, watching them, and moving with them. Even more so, I have Folklore Village to thank for the confidence that kept me dancing even though I didn’t know the steps, that kept me smiling even though I knew I stood out, and that kept me singing even though I didn’t speak the language.
I spent six weeks in Toubacouta with Troupe Allah Laké, (Though there were plenty of European tourists visiting at the hotels, I was one of two American students in a town of roughly three thousand people, and I was definitly the only one in the troupe who hadn’t spent my whole life in Senegal). From the first day I met them, I was treated as any other member of the troupe. I went to rehearsals, and I was able to perform with them almost nightly at the hotels, and I also had the honor of performing in front of my whole town and neighboring villages on the 4th of April- Senegal’s 50th independence day. It was my third performance. I had had five days of rehearsal.
I was also fortunate enough to be allowed to sit in at meetings and conduct interviews with several key troupe members about their plans to build a cultural center there in Toubacouta. Troupe Allah Laké had been undergoing some major changes a few months before I arrived. I found out that they had combined what was previously two different dance troups into the one I knew, and were applying for government grants to start consturction on a building that would provide rehearsal and performance space for not only the resident performers but visiting artists who came through. They wanted a space to teach classes, hold concerts, and rehearse (While I was there we rehearsed every day on the beach, waiting until the sun was low enough and the sand was cool enough for bare feet. Although it was admittedly picturesque and sounds amazing, it was clear that all the musicians and dancers would be better off practicing on a dance surface free from twigs and shells, and without being interrupted by any children, crowds of visitors with video cameras, or on occasion, a neighbor’s goat). They asked me if I understood what they meant when they described this goal, asking if in America we had places like the one they were trying to make into a reality. I thought immediately of Folklore Village.
My last day in Toubacouta before heading back to Dakar, I spoke with Bathie Ndiaye, the head of the troupe. Though very encouraging and a wonderful teacher, he had always been a man of few words, partly due to a sizeable language barrier, but on my last day he sat me down, looked me right in the eye, and told me it was my duty to go back to America and teach everyone what I had learned with Allah Laké.
He told me that they had only once before had an intern for more than a few days at a time, and that just as I had never done West African dance before, they’d never had a student like me before. He was stunned by how quickly I threw myself into not just the mechanics of the dance steps and rhythmes, but the culture as a whole. He said that I had truly become a member of Troupe Allah Laké, and as a member of the troupe, it was my duty to pass on what I had learned.

I was honored, I said, but I only knew the five dances we had been performing.
He told me to teach the five dances I did know.
I told him I wasn’t sure I knew the drum rhythems well enough to perform them.
He told me that I would just have to practice them until I was.
I told him I might forget a few dances or songs.
He made me promise to come back soon to learn more, and that I’d have to work hard in the meantime so that when I came back we could pick up right where we left off.
I protested that I didn’t know of any dance school that would let me teach.
Bathie looked at me, and kindly reminded me that I live in America, where I can start my own dance school if I need to. And besides, he added, isn’t there anywhere I could find people who would want to learn our dances?

Since coming back I have done my best to honor that promise I made. I’m still in contact with a few friends from the troupe, and get calls every other week from my host family. I’ve taught several of my friends some dance steps, and tried to keep all of the songs locked inside my head. This became much easier when, eight months after my internship, I found myself back at Folklore Village for the 2010-2011 Festival of Midwinter Traditions. I have always appreciated the community that FLV creates, but this year in particular I took nothing for granted. So often I would look around and realize how so much of my life was shaped by this annual process of tradition and renewal.
I taught theater games I had learned from my uncle, and during the Santa Lucia program noticed how I barely had to teach the songs anymore- all the kids had learned them just as I had. This time, though, for the first time, it was my turn to bring something back from my own life experiences. In addition to keeping alive the activities and traditions I’d grown up with, I could add something completely new to the mix.
Finally, I was able to do a presentation during the scheduled “tea time” talking about my experience abroad, and afterwards I spent an hour in the farmhouse cooking ataaya in my tiny teapot on the stove. The ceremony takes a full hour to complete, and it was nice having time to chat to the small group around the kitchen while I poured the strong, heavily sweetened tea from one cup to another just as I had learned, having the youngest person present serve the tea to all present, in strict order of age- eldest first.
I had also taught two African dance workshops earlier in the festival with Ellen Binns teaching drumming, and a few songs. During the evening party we all dressed up (including some clothing I brought back from Senegal) and gave a small performance. In the line of dancers, I realized I was standing next to my mother and my grandmother, both of whom had gone to the two workshops earlier. In that moment, I was more proud and more grateful than I have ever been in my life.
It’s a very good thing that West African dance is, as an art form, the most energetic and expressive and joyous activity I know of. The only thing I could do was dance, if I had not I would have burst. That one performance, for me, was pure gratitude. It was my way of paying homage to Bathie Ndiaye and Troupe Allah Laké who had welcomed me with open arms and patiently taught me for my six week internship. It was my way of honoring my family- my mother and grandmother, and my bigger family- the community that had watched me grow up. And it was what I feel just one small way of giving back to Folklore Village, the village that had raised this child.

After the performance was over, I couldn’t stop smiling. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I wanted to shout, “Thank you!”
This is what you have given me.
Thank you for helping me become the kind of person that can go, and learn with the tools you gave me, of acceptance and enthusiasm and a strong sense of world community.
Thank you for helping me become the kind of person that can come back, and bring with me the tools to teach and share what I have learned with people who care as much as I do, who understand the importance of traditions and cultures like this. “
In Senegal I experienced a community in which the older generation is highly respected for the experiences they have had, and for what wisdom and knowledge they can pass on to the younger generations. One of my teachers mentioned that in America, this does not exist. He was right. I have found, however, in Folklore Village, a community in which the younger generation is valued and empowered for the experiences they will have, fueled by the wisdom and knowledge they will pass on once they are older.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

8 Missed Calls

Today was the second day of classes. I spent the entire day absorbed in scheduling, being on time and having the right books and catching up with people I hadn't seen in almost a year. Mondays and Wednesdays all my classes are in the theater building anyway- I thought of nothing else. After class I went straight to rehearsal, and was singing for three or four hours. The day ended at about nine-thirty.

On the way home, I looked at my phone and saw that I had eight missed calls. The same number tried to call me five times. My phone didn't recognize it, the "221" country code gave it away. Senegal.

I went through my notebook, the back pages where I wrote down everyone's phone numbers, promising to call. It only reminded me of how many people I haven't spoken to since then. The number that called my phone is not in my notebook. Someone must have gotten a new phone. Maybe my Dakar family called- I didn't write down Raissa's number, or Papa Anicet's. I dont' know who called me, and it's too late at night to call them back. I should try sometime soon, though. I don't want to be rude. And I really want to know who's spending the money and effort to call me.

I took a shower tonight, and instead of singing I realized I was talking. Speaking, in French and Wolof and a little tiny bit of Mandinka, imagining conversations. I pretend I'm sitting at "chez les 4 freres" with the guys, listening to macho drummers bicker about how to make the perfect cup of tea. I tease Mamadou about his Belgian girlfriend and Ibou about Martine, the French tourist who wouldn't leave him alone. (She called me the other day. Twice, during class. Then texted me, said Ibou gave her my number. Such a friendly talkative woman, and just as unwilling as I am to let go of Toubacouta.)

I make crazy plans with Sw and Maimouna about going on tour all over the states, dancing. I show Samba how much better I've gotten. I come up with countless ways of laughing off sai-sai boys on the street who ask why I don't want a boyfriend. I barter taxi fares and have in-depth conversations with friends about what it means to be an artist.

I can't stop thinking about my 150 children at Garderie Baobab, and how to earn their respect. If I can get them all to learn my name in just one week, why couldn't I get them to learn their ABC's? I can't stop thinking about Ndeye Sirra, my five-year-old helper, who used her recess time identifying letters, smudging sticky bissap-fingers over the pages of my notebook. I keep coming back to the question of HOW can I teach them, how can I help them, I have to come up with a system that works.

I've read "Give with Gratitude" and "Nine Hills to Nambonkaha". I've decided that the Peace Corps isn't for me, not right now, but am starting to look into different scholarships. I'm a "student consultant" here at the U, I'm going to advise students who are looking at MSID Senegal, email suggested packing lists and homestay advice. I can't let it go. I can't stop thinking about it.

And even when I do stop thinking about it- like today, when I went a good twelve hours totally absorbed in not just American culture, but the tiny West Bank Minneapolis Theater culture- they call and remind me that they're still thinking of me.

I keep coming back to what I told everyone before I left. D'abord, j'étudie. Aprés, je travaille. Quand j'ai assez travaillé, je vais retourner. I'm coming back, c'est sure. It's just going to take some work. And it's comforting to know that the people I'm longing to see again are far more patient than I am.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Remember me?

It's been about two months since my last blog post. I'd been writing like crazy, trying not to forget a thing from Toubacouta, since I couldn't do blog posts there. Two months since my last blog post, four months since I left Senegal. My hair, when it's braided, takes two elastics, not fifty. It was chilly today- the coldest I've been since January. Four months in Senegal, and I still feel the need to count time like this.

I still talk nonstop about last semester, and only just stopped wearing my "petit afrique" necklace Abdoulaye gave me. I have yet to play my djembe, but only just stopped my twice-a-week dance classes. It was Raissa's birthday a few days ago- we talked on facebook. I've called my families and friends several times- and they've called me. I haven't talked to any MSID friends, not face to face yet. I'm sitting alone in my apartment, my new room, with colorful pagnes hung over the windows as curtains, my drum propped up against the bed. My teapot on the shelf, but still only one cup that survived the plane ride. The cups that always come in two, to share. You can't make the frothy tea without pouring it from cup to cup, so I need two, I need someone to share with.

I just re-read some early blog posts. About my first few days in Dakar. There's one from January 18th, "Skilna∂artàra", in which I wrote about a song I sing, "who can sail without the wind?". I wrote about it the day before leaving.

Here's a story from Toubacouta:

It was my second or third day in town, in my new family. I missed Mama Binta and Liberté 3, my neighborhood and friends and family in Dakar. I missed my family and friends in the states, and was still shy around my new Toubacouta family. I didn't know what to do with myself, there wasn't any work to be done that I knew how to do, no schoolwork, no salsa. And my nephew Petit (his name is Ansou. We call him "junior") comes in, who can barely speak French, and sits down on the floor in my room (The living room, remember) and starts singing,

Qui peut faire de la voile sans vent?
Qui peut rammer sans ramme
Et qui peut quitter son ami
sans verser de larme?

I am the farthest I have ever been from home, and can't imagine being in a place farther. I have never been so far away from anyone I know. And the song most dear to me, that I have learned and sung with those most close to me, is coming out of the mouth of a boy whose family I have just been welcomed into.

I start singing along, of course, fighting back tears of relief and joy and tension all at once dispelled. I wasn't looking for a sign, but here it is; I'm home. As far from home as I can possibly be, and I'm home. I recorded him on my computer. He figured out pretty quickly that singing that song gets a rise out of me, so he invited some of his friends in one night so they could all sing it for me. Petit was correcting their pronunciation even though he didn't know what the French words meant himself. Of course, I do that when we sing in Icelandic or Swedish. He couldn't understand when I tried to tell him that I sang that song with my friends. Of course I did. It's what every Senegalese kid learns in school, in an educational system inherited (or abandoned) by the French.

I miss them.

I'll keep writing occasionally, though, just for the sake of writing and remembering and getting it all out so I don't annoy everyone around me with these stories like I already feel like I'm doing.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Dear Samba, and Abdoulaye, and Salif, and Maimouna, and Ibou, and Mamadou, and everyone in Allah Laké,

I'm sorry I haven't been able to call recently. Abdoulaye's beeped me a few times but Skype isn't working the way it should so I can't get credit to call him back. And besides that, I've been busy.

I want to tell you that I just finished teaching my friend all the steps to Zowlin, and I can even sing the beat while we dance. Two days a week I teach her, or I said she could just call whenever and we'd walk to campus and dance. It's the closest thing I've got to taking two djembes down to the beach after a hotel show.

(I'm typing like a crab, it sounds like, scurrying across the keyboard. No wonder emails are only a few sentences long, and misspelled. You all hunt and peck it takes hours. Another reason I never email. You'll have to get to the internet café and it'll take the full hour slot just to open a browser window. Doesnt' help that some of the keyboards are english and some are french, so the keys are always switched around. If you all saw how much I write on this blog you wouldn't believe it was all me)

And these last two weeks I've been busy, what I'll tell you on the phone is that I'm helping with a program of interns who are younger than I am, where I learn dancing from older artists in the morning and teach the younger ones in the evening. I won't try to explain that I'm taking west african dance steps from all different ballets and mixing them together to represent a scene from the play Romeo and Juliet. I won't tell you that I was effectively a T.A. for a high school summer intensive program where we introduced twenty high school juniors and seniors to college life, and I got to sit in on all their sessions and try to create a piece on my own. I'll tell you the important part- I'm learning from other artists and teachers with much more experience, and also teaching my friends what i learned from you.

And in the evenings I write songs. That's what I'll say. I have rehearsal every night, and I won't need to mention how sometimes rehearsal gets canceled, you'll understand that as part of the deal. Maybe when I visit again I'll try and translate the epic of Gilgamesh into French or Wolof, I may have some songs to sing you, but what you want to hear is that I'm part of a theater troupe and I'm creating songs to perform during shows.

And of course, my family is here, my mother and father and sister are all here, all doing well, they say hello to you all and your families of course. Aisha is doing fine, and Marie says hello, and all my friends do too. I'll remind you that I haven't been living with my family, I've been living with some friends at the university, my family is far away, and no it isn't sad. I'm going to see them soon, and I'll tell them all you say hello. And you tell everyone in Toubacouta I say hello back. Yes I'm going to live at home with my family for another two months before I go back to the university.

My friend is arriving tomorrow, you'll already assume she's staying with me, the one I told you all about, who can walk on stilts. The one who I'm teaching all the songs. And some dances, too, hopefully. She will be my guest for a few days, and then we're going to a Grand Fete, a huge festival where I will teach more classes in singing and learn from many many artists, it's at a cultural center like the one you're trying to raise money to build. It'll be the closest I'll have come to seeing stars like i know them now. I'm going to teach them "un elephant", the children's handclapping rhyme all the kids know- my two year old niece could have taught it to me. Yes, when you have a cultural center built in Toubacouta, that's when I'll come back. I'll come with an American troupe, and perform there. I'll teach you all my own songs and dances, and come back for another internship with you. When you've got it built. Just let me know.

It's been raining here, very hard. I waited three hours for the rain to stop before I took a bus home yesterday. You won't think anything of it, besides maybe the fact that I counted the hours. I'd love to show you around our bus system, how they arrive faithfully every fifteen minutes. But as I was waiting I was talking to this museum guard, he was from Ghana, his name is Anthony. An entire wedding party walked by into their air conditioned catered party room, and Anthony talked to me about his family and how hard it is to find a job. We talked about how weddings are so fancy here, and you have to be invited to come, and you have to order food in advance and everyone gets just the food they ordered. And how the band is told not to play too loud, not to disturb the neighbors that no one knows and aren't invited. The last wedding I was at I was performing. It was nice, I wasn't alone while I waited for the rain to stop, and his accent reminded me of this girl from WARC.

But it's still hot. Not *as* hot, no. But I'm sitting in my pagne, the one I got my first day in Dakar for orientation, when they tried to teach us to dance on Honorine's roof, and my roommate is wearing a pagne too, she's wearing the one I gave her with the fabric I bought at the market. It's too hot to wear anything else. And I still wear the pendant, my "gris gris" that I always wore in Senegal, and now most days I wear my "petite afrique" on the silver chain that you gave me. It's easy to point out where I was when people ask about Senegal. Some days I wear the bracelet I bought in St. Louis, and some days the bracelet Maimouna gave me before my very first performance at Hotel Paletuviers.

I talked to Salif's family, to his father in Atlanta, Georgia. It's very far away to visit, but I hope one day I can meet him and his family. If he ever comes to the midwest to perform, he said he'd give me a call.

I've made ceeb u jenn once, and attaya a few times. Of course I can do that! I had good teachers. My friends all prefer the third cup. I still prefer the second. Sweet like life. Love is too sugary for me, in the third cup of attaya.

I haven't forgotten Wolof. Or the songs. Or the dances. I go over the steps in the shower, on my bike to the west bank, as I fall asleep. Of course I'm coming back to learn more. Awww, no, it's me who misses all of you. Yes, it is nice to hear your voice again. I'm very happy to talk to you. Yes, of course I'll continue dancing and teaching. No, how could you even think I'd forget? I'll keep practicing Wolof and dancing and singing. And you say hello to Ibou for me, and Ice-T, and Khadi, and Maimouna. And your sisters, and mother, and grandmother- are you still teasing her? Shouldn't do that. And Maimouna, how's your son? And clever Ndeye Sirra? And your mother all the women at Garderie Baobab? Yes, next time you take a group of toubabs to visit say hello to Sonko and the rest. And don't let my cousin Mamadou grow his hair too long, or Fatou will throw a fit. There's a reason Croco doesn't have rastas like the rest of the drummers. And Ibou, take care of your fingers! Don't stain another drum. And Mamadou, give my regards to la princesse, I hope she's not still jealous. No, I haven't told Aisha about her.

yes. I'm coming back. When I finish university and find a good job, and make enough money to come back and share it with you all. When the cultural center's finished, I'll be there for the grand opening. When Fatou's new house is finished, I'll come and stay in the guest room. Or if you come on tour here to America, I'll find you places to perform. I'll be host and guide then, how about that? We'll drink attaya and play djembe. And yeah, Ibou, I'll tell Alicia Keyes you said hi.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spring Break! (Part Four)

Part Four
We also ate dinner at the campement the second night- a tiny hostel-like place in teh village I’d walked to the day before. We got directions from the guys at the visitor’s center- they said to basically follow the road until we got to the trees, and it’d be there. The village was pretty small anyway, we’d be sure to find it. We let them know ahead of time how many of us there were so they could prepare for eleven hungry tourists- they said to show up around eight or nine.

“Eight or nine” is after dark, a detail that had been worrying me but not too much until we actually started walking down the road. The same dark road without any light at all that allowed us to see the stars so beautifully the night before. We used our cell phones as flashlights to see the ground. The problem is that when the road is made of sand and the ground is made of sand, you can’t tell where to turn off- we’d almost passed the village entirely before a man caught up with us with a flashlight lamp-torche telling us toubabs we’d missed the road. We thanked him and started walking straight across what could have been someone’s yard, aiming for what few lights we could see before the same man and his friend caught up to us and said they’d show us the way. It was kind of embarrassing, but we were all frustrated from a long day at the bird park and then arguing about prices and then trying to find our way to this campement, so we ended up just following the men. The same few girls who had been the “coordinators” of this entire trip went first, politely chatting with our guides.
I could barely see when we finally made it to the campement- the pale flourescent lights were so harsh it took a while for our eyes to adjust. We ended up in what looked to me like a grey concrete room with two long tables- the first table was occupied by a bunch of French people who might as well have been on a picnic in a park- next to their table was a cooler which contained I assumed some wine because already consumed what looked like most of a bottle and were being raucous and jolly. It threw us off. We’re in the middle of nowhere, and there’s a group of French seniors having a picnic. As we sat and waited for our dinner, one of the guys picked up a shell from the table and pretended it was a telephone to call me, and as we had a conversation his friend pretended to remonte-control drive the cockroach that was crawling across the floor. The two women were taking lots of flash photos. It was very surreal. Dinner was good too- I don’t think any of us had eaten lunch, and only a few had paid the overexpensive hotel breakfast, a few others I know had eaten fruit from St. Louis, so we were able to all finish our dinners. And our guide came back to lead us to the main road where we stargazed our way back to the hotel.

The next morning we played the Celebrities Game on the way to the Dunes.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hair (or, Mayday Part One)

I took out my braids yesterday. Fifty tiny little braids, each with its own yellow or red or blue or green elastic- or one of my sister's braces elastics- or without since they'd been breaking recently. After all, I'd had them in since May first. A month and almost two weeks later I tried not to think too hard about the day I got my hair braided. Snipping off each one right above the elastic, my hair's all nice and layered now, hopefully less split ends, and after a shower and some shampoo it's back to normal.

Good timing, too, another week and I would've had rasta dreads. It was getting manky and matting together but I'd gotten so used to the braids, so attached to them (haha). It was something else I was holding onto for no reason, but when am I ever gonna get my hair done like that again? I'm not just referring to the braids. I'm referring to the experience.

May day was they day I was looking forward to the least, right from the start. I thought I'd get super homesick, since it's the only holiday during spring semester that I really get into. It's funny how holidays line up, though- I called my family to say "happy independence day" and had forgotten they'd be celebrating Easter on April 4th. When I was thinking about my Minneapolis family and the May Day parade this year, my Toubacouta family was planning for the Labor Day parade. Samba told me the night before that there'd be a huge gathering right in front of the school where I worked (or had just finished working the day before) and then there'd be a parade, and the whole town would be there. I couldn't wait! We hadn't had rehearsal or a show since that Wednesday for the troupe, so Saturday would be a good chance to see everyone and say goodbye since I was leaving Sunday morning. He said the parade would start around eight in the morning.

So I wake up at seven as usual. And I eat breakfast as usual, and I'm humming Hal-An-Tow and my family laughs at me for singing in English and asks me to sing the Mandinka songs I learned instead, they want to hear *this* one or *that* one and then they want to see me dance, because it's oh-so-funny to hear me sing and watch me dance, never mind that it's seven in the morning, I must want to entertain them, why wouldn't I? And because it's my last day I pretend to be so elated to sing for them right after waking up, do they notice I'm still wearing my pajama top no of course not. Concentrate on how much you'll miss them tomorrow not on how you feel like a performing dog in a circus. And when they get tired of requesting songs and dance moves, Fatou asks me to help her fold laundry. No, not the clean laundry that just came off the line. The laundry from the closet- ALL of the clothes my family owns, apparently needed to be re-folded and re-organized, right away. And since I can fold laundry, I was goign to help. And I did. I figured since Samba told me the parade would start at 8, I could wait a few hours and go at 9. I told Fatou I'd help with the clothes. She said "Good" and went to go give Grand-mère her breakfast, leaving me alone in the house, feeling like I was about to try and spin straw into gold.

Luckily Fatou came back after about an hour. I asked her if there was going to be a parade. She said "oh, yeah, I think I hear music from that side of town... I guess there must be" and after an awkward silence I asked if I could go. She said yes of course I could go if I wanted to. After another awkward silence I asked if I could go *now*. She said yes, of course, why wouldn't I? (the huge house-cleaning thing for one... but I didn't argue) So I take my camera and rush (okay, walk.) down to the Garderie where there's a HUGE sound system all set up playing bad pop music that you can hear all over town (literally). Sitting directly in front of the speakers is Khadi and Maimouna and this guy from the troupe who I assume is Khadi's husband but I never can tell 'cause they don't really talk but she's always sitting next to him and I'm always too shy to ask in case they're siblings or something. No one else is there. I ask what's going on and they shrug. I wait for a bit, but then leave to take one more picture-tour of the neighborhood, snapping pictures of all the places I see/saw every day. Almost no one's around, it's weird. I finally see Samba talking to Ice-T, and as I get closer Ibou shows up too. Samba asks if I'm on my way to the "manifestation" so I guess it's a protest parade, and Ibou offers to walk me there, and since I've been fighting off tears since I woke up and realized that it was gonna be a long day of "lasts", there is nothing I'd rather do.

So we walk back to the school, and sit and wait. By this time though I'm used to sitting and waiting. It's what this town does- it's what this country does. Sit and wait. And at this point I can do that too. It's hot out, and I'm with my friends. We don't talk, hardly even look at each other, but we're sitting near each other which here counts as hanging out. The music's too loud anyway. Abdoulaye Sarr shows up, and some kids run through who were in my class. It's my last day in Toubacouta and I'm sitting and waiting for something to happen. As people start to gather though I see my cousin Sali standing at the edge of the road, just sort of staring at me. Which would be odd, if I weren't used to odd by now. I get the feeling though, that I should go over and see what's up.

So I walk over and she asks why I'm there. Which I don't answer. And she asks when I want her to do my hair. I say whenever she wants to, I'm free. After another awkward pause, I say "so would now work?" and she says no, she's got to go to a neighbor's to see if they're ready to start cooking the huge lunch for the manifestation. But she doesn't move. After another awkward pause I ask if I could go with her. She shrugs and turns and walks away, which I know means I should follow. We walk to a compound I recognize as Salif's , where she pulls up a chair on the porch of one of the houses and tells me to sit down. I do. She then tells me to tilt my head forward. As soon as I do, she starts RIPPING my hair into sections and braiding it. Just like that.

So I'm sitting on a stranger's porch getting my hair done because Sali's waiting to hear news of when she's supposed to help cook lunch for the protest/parade that is of now four hours late in happening, and my hair which hasn't really been brushed that day is getting ripped all sorts of directions because she's used to dealing with FAKE hair that doesn't hurt when you pull it. Also, they start from the back of your head, which happens to be the most painful, as I found out. My head is down so I can't see anything and they can't see the faces I'm making, and I can hear people gathering about thirty feet away by the school where I'd much rather be but I get the feeling Sali wanted to do my hair today and didn't have any other time to do it. She acted like she was bored out of her mind, but that's how she always is. She's fifteen, I kept forgetting, and the classic teenager.

So two hours later after I was getting a crick in my neck and ready to scream from the pain, she casually mentioned "so anytime you want to go, we should". As if she was waiting for me. As if we were there because I wanted to stay. We just spent at least two hours sitting on someone's porch for no reason other than both of us thought the other one wanted to be there. Story of my life. Cousin Sali in a nutshell. So I suggested we go back to our house where I could BRUSH MY HAIR so it wouldn't hurt as much. As we leave, though, she mentions that the parade just left, if I "wanted to go see it". I didn't think anyone would be there, so I said it was okay if she just wanted to go home. She stood there and pointed out lazily that all my friends would be in the parade by now, we could hear the drums from there.

So with half my hair (the underside) in braids and the other (top) half down over it, we walked to catch up with the parade. For the comedy of this situation to really hit home, you need to understand the speed at which most people here walk. Imagine you're late for the bus but have to walk behind a very sleepy three-year-old. And it's hot out. And the roads are made of sand. The parade was three blocks ahead of us, and Sali kept saying things like "don't you want to see your friends" one minute and "Why are you in a hurry? they're right over there" the next. She has a way of making me feel like I'm dragging her along everywhere, even though usually she's the one who tells me to get up and go (though she doesn't say "where") or insists on coming along. But I do my best to walk as quickly as is polite to catch up with my friends. Good thing I brought along my camera.

There's a pickup truck with speakers in teh back, and a microphone, and some of the drummers are chanting "Respectez, les artistes, respectez, les contracts!" it's a protest march, there are all these women in brilliantly colored dresses holding big signs (that I only see the back of) and the truck's got at least ten guys standing/sitting/clinging to it, and there are drums and people are waving from their houses as we make a tour of the town. As soon as I reach the tail end of parade, Sali pulls at my arm and informs me that we're caught up now, and I shouldn't rush, I should stay with my family (a few cousins, some ten-year-old girls, have found me). I'm literally two yards from Ibou and Abdoulaye and they couldn't hear me if I shouted. But this is my last day as Aminata Sylla, and Sali's being so nice to braid my hair and it's family and she doesn't realize how frustrating she's being. I need to spend time with my family. So I stay with her. Until she points to Fatou and Khadi and says "look, your friends, the girls from the troupe. They'll miss you when you're gone. Go say hi to them" So with the permission of my fifteen year old cousin I go say hi to the two girls.

I realize how little my family knows about my troupe. Everyone assumes that I'd be friends with the female dancers and have no connection to any of the guys. Even the guys in the troupe assume I'll only be friends with the girls. And I am, I really am friends with Maimouna and Khadi and Fatou and Sw and Maimouna. But for some reason it's less stressful to hang out with Mamadou and Ibou. And Abdoulaye's the one who teaches me dancing and drumming. And I realized that my family knows none of that when we passed by Abdoulaye's house and Sali mentioned "someone from your troupe lives there. You know Abdoulaye Ndong? (she points to him, three feet away, who I've been trying to catch up to this whole time) He lives here. He's not married, though."

Thanks for the info, Sali. I've been there at least once every day for the last three weeks. It's where everyone hangs out after a show. Or before a show. I waved at his sister.

We kept moving, and eventually I got to say hi to more people. I took photos, too. Salif made funny faces, and Wayne tried to get me to jump on the truck with them, but I knew Sali wouldn't like that. For some reason my family gets weird around the troupe. Eventually though she pulled me aside to go talk to her friends who were sitting by the side of the main road. I stood while she chatted for a while, then told her I was going home. "Then when am I going to finish your hair?" I said whenever she wanted, since I'd be home. She got up and walked with me then back to the house.

It was a little after one in the afternoon.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Amazing Grace

It's been one month since I left Senegal. A little over a month since I left Toubacouta. A little under a month since I left Dakar. In one month I have changed cities, houses, and families four times. I've been packing, unpacking, saying hello and goodbye and promising to keep in touch and promising to meet soon for tea or coffee or attaya. From small town to big city to small town to big city. Three different pairs of flip flops, two different ways to cook ceeb u jenn. Two five-hour drives and one eight-hour plane ride. Three or four languages. Two dance troupes, several songs.

I still haven't taken out my braids, that Sali and Roky gave me on May 1st, my last full day in Toubacouta. I'm still finishing up the bright blue pills that keep away malaria, and while I'm at it the vitamin supplements because let's face it, a college student's diet is probably just as healthy is four months of maffé and fried-egg-cheeseburgers. I still say "am ul solo" and walk down the street singing in Mandinka. I walk a lot slower now, too.

Abdoulaye called me today- I said I'd call him back. It's cheaper for me to call Senegal than it is for any of them to call me, and even if it weren't I'm the one that can afford it. It's still hard to understand phone French. I was shopping when he called, at Target. In the middle of the office supplies, picking out pens. Bic's. Said I was at the market because I don't know the word for "department store" in french. Picked up some froot loops and hot dogs, blank CDs, a notebook, a toothbrush. Walking down Nicollet all the people asking for money had written their own signs and didn't talk to anyone. It was drizzling. The busses that went by were nearly empty.

At Target I also bought this book "Boundless Grace", because it was the sequel to one of my favorite books when I was little- "Amazing Grace", all about this little girl who loves stories and wants to be Peter Pan in the class play even though she's a girl and she's black. The year I got that book I was Peter Pan for Halloween, and I remember feeling distinctly superior and more liberated than all the Tinkerbells I saw. I still remember some of the illustrations in that picture book, so seeing my favorite character, Grace, years later at Target pulled me up short. In this book, though, Grace likes stories about fathers because her dad left when she was a baby. Turns out Grace goes to visit him where he lives with his new family in the Gambia. The watercolor illustrations are gorgeous. She goes to the airport and is greeted by this costumed guy on stilts ( and then goes to her father's compound where she meets her Papa and his new wife and her kids, they go to the market where people carry their shopping on their heads. She goes to a fabric store and gets measured for a traditional Gambian outfit.

And this is how I know that the illustrator had to at least know someone who had been to west Africa. Because how else would Caroline Binch know that the green glass Sprite bottles have a different shape from the clear glass Fanta bottles when she paints Grace having a Fanta and her Nana having a Sprite, right in front of a hibiscus/bissap plant. And how the family's dog would wander through the yard licking out the calabash bowl stacked next to the big metal bowls under the mango tree. And in the meantime Mary Hoffman writes about how Grace realizes that her family isn't like the one in stories. It isn't a mom and a dad and a sister and a brother and a cat and a dog. Grace learns that her family includes a Nana, and a stepmother who isn't mean, and two younger siblings named Bakary and Jatou who have never even heard of Cinderella.

"Sometimes Ma called from home and her voice made Grace feel homesick. 'I feel like gum, stretched out all thin in a bubble,' she told Nana. 'As if there isn't enough of me to go around. I can't manage two families. What if I burst?' 'Seems to me there IS enough of you, Grace,' said Nana. 'Plenty to go around. And remember, families are what you make them."

I was ready to leave Senegal by the time I left. It was just enough time to be there, and I am glad to be back. I really am. It just doesn't seem like it. But I promise, I'm here. I missed being here and yes this is my home and yes this is my family and I love you all more than anything. If anything, I appreciate what I have here a hundred times more than I ever did. It just doens't seem like it.

I didn't really get culture shock when I got back. I didn't really get culture shock when I left. See, when you hear the term "culture shock" what you expect is just that- a shock. The instant surprise of something being different, more different than you expected. No one says that sometimes it takes longer than that. That it isn't the fact that things are different, or that things are the same, it's the fact that you have two ideas of what "market" means now. It's that when you say "family" you always feel the need to be more specific. That even though you spent four months craving English slang words and someone who would Just Understand What I Effing Mean When I Talk, it's a good thing you got used to it over there 'cause being back is just as frustrating. I forget who I told what about my trip and feel almost guilty talking about it.

See, I'm used to call and response now. "Nangadeff" is always followed by "Maangi fii rekk". You hear "Assalaam Malekum" and you say "Malekum Salaam". I get back and I say "hey how are you?" and they say "good, how've you been?" and I say "good" and it's just fine. But what's the culturally appropriate response, how do I answer according to social normal expectation, to the question, "So, how was Senegal?"

I miss the shooting stars.