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He learned how to give greeting -- 9 months in Senegal.

vendredi, février 17

War naa gen dëkk bi!

'I gotta get out of this town!' I've been especially bad at communication this past week, so if you're reading this wondering where the hell I am, what on Earth I'm doing with myself, at least know that you are not alone. Even the friends I run into here in Dakar - yes, I'm still in town - give me astonished looks. "You're still here!? Weren't you going to...??"

So here - if at all possible briefly - is the story. I'd promised myself, along with a good number of other people, that I would leave Dakar last Monday morning. After weeks of dawdling and discussion here in Dakar, I was finally to start the 'research' I'm hoping to do this semester. I'd hop on some form of public transport back to good old, broiling hot Tambacounda. From there I'd hire a taxi or combine a bus ride with some hiking to reach the village of Medina Kuta, on the northern border of Senegal's largest National Park, Niokola Koba. After that, the schedule of events gets a little more fuzzy, but I reckoned that I'd figure it out pretty quickly upon arrival.

The idea is to spend some time in this village and the surrounding area in order to specify what research I can actually accomplish while here. Going to Medina Kouta allows me to combine the 'official' support of the Non-Government Organization CRESP EcoYoff with the more helpful expertise of Prof. Cheikh Mbow. After 3 weeks in the area, I'll return to Dakar to - with any luck, "insh'alla" - write a nice, formal, academically-satisfying research proposal. After that I go back to Medina Kuta to do the real research.

By last Saturday morning, I'd started packing my bags, and was just beginning to worry about how to acquire a ticket for the 'express bus' to Tambacounda, when I was struck by one final, pre-departure task: I'd yet to change the date of my airline ticket back home. For the city of Dakar, this one yet another opportunity to snag me down, just as I was hitting the road.

As my pre-Senegal at least partially organized self, I booked my Senegal plane tickets well in advance, in April 2005. However at the time I was informed that it was impossible to book the return ticket for May that far ahead of time. I know some other folks who were however, able to do so, but I'll get to that point in a moment. So, happily I bought the return ticket for March 1 with the assurance that it could be easily changed once I was in Senegal.

With this in mind I hitched a taxi to South Africa's downtown office Saturday morning to take care of business "taf, taf" as they say here. Quite familiar with South African airways' various locations across town after the little Christmas hastle with my parents, I quietly entered the slightly run-down, glass-front office, sat down, and politely began the dialogue in Wolof. (to be finished)

lundi, février 6

Tilim na waay rafet na kay!

'It's dirty, but sure is beautiful.' After all this talk of mourning, I'm going to move on to a subject that is more upbeat. What follows are some reflections on the Dakar city dump.

(Sorry there are no photos, but I'm planning a return visit to collect some.)

I visited the dump, near the village of Mbeubeuse, on Saturday with the CIEE Environment and Development class. I've been sitting in on the course to see what I'll be missing, and biting my lips that a class so relevant, informative, and well-taught has materialized now that I've quit CIEE. It appears packed full of interesting excursions and inspiring independant projects, but I won't mull on that.

Saturday morning, we trundled our way inland towards Rufisque, then turned off northwards into the chaotic, semi-formal suburbs that spill out from the Cap Vert penninsula. These hold Dakar's poorest inhabitants, who have flocked to the city since village life became economically unbearable during the '70s droughts. Not surprisingly they're also the site of some of Dakar's urban disasters: the horrendous flooding that took thousands of homes during the wet season, and the dump.

I thought pulling up to the beginning of the dump was a little bit like reaching the end of the road. It was one of those places where you can feel something arriving, never again to leave. In the case of the dump this thing includes household, industrial and medical waste, and a good quantity of raw sewage water. You know you are coming to the end when the road degrades into a steep series of humps and wet potholes (though its not rained in 3 1/2 months), then arrives at a shanty-town junction lined by tin and scrap-wood restaurants, mechanic shops, and offices. From there, the road forks right, and begins to mount the literal mountain of garbage that runs like a spine 7 km down the coast of Cap Vert.

We continued, pushing through drifting clouds of black, oily smoke from burning tires, scattering to avoid the ramshackle dump trucks roaring along with their cargo, responding to the challenging calls of the filthy people for which this world is home and office. And bizarrely, that's when it became stunning. Gorgeous. Perhaps my sense of ascetics has been tortured and warped by my prolonged stay here, but I'd honestly rate the dump as one of Dakar's most beautiful spots. The mountain of compacted garbage is some of the only high ground in Senegal. So as you climb the road, you finally see stretching off, what has surrounded and counfed you the whole time. At Mbeubeuse it was the jumbled, village suburbs pushing against the more built up quartiers on Cap Vert.

But the natural scenery was also astounding. We're almost halfway into the dry season, and I don't see how much is going to survive the remaining five months. Dakar is endlessly sandy and parched and greenery is hard to come by. But from the foot of the dump stretched green fields of lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, mint - the location of which helps to explain why Dakar has had problems with cholera infected-vegetables. In the other direction, bright water shimmered under a thick canopy of palms, an oasis in this urban desert. Just before the sea, a long ridge of dunes is covered in dull green conifers.

All of this is thanks to the niaye that once sat on the spot of the dump. Niayes are wetland-lakes that hold onto some of their water during the dry season. Before Dakar happened, they were one of the distinctive natural features of the penninsula; it was in fact their greenery that gave Cap Vert its name. When the naiyes dried up during the '70s droughts, people feeling the pressure of a burgeoning population decided they would be convenient places to leave trash. The Mbeubeuse niaye was one of the biggest on the penninsula, and so the government decided to formalize it as the city dump. Now just about full, they're planning to create another in a village down the coast.

Mbeubeuse must have been spectacular before the dump, but I think the world of human waste that looms over it heightens its ascetic impact. The human brain seems to have a good sense of irony. The coctail of hormones and other biochemicals it excreted to accompany the contrast of filth and natural beauty led to an experience that was truly thrilling. I can't find the words to decribe the experience any further. Obviously this would be the one day I assume I could leave my camera behind.

Along the road that followed the crest of the dump we saw scavengers and recyclers, men of all ages and filthy to the bone, pulling and processing any piece of refuse that was of value: bottles, plastic bags, tins of tomatoe paste, scraps of wood and clothing. Burning down tyres in order to salvage the metal frame within. There were whole villages and workshops scattered amongst the rolling hills at the height of the proposterous mound of garbage.

After walking a kilometer down its back, we turned back half-traumatized. Our throats burning, our eyes sore, unnerved by the calls of the workers and by the trucks that nearly ran us over. Obviously disturbed by the conditions of dump life, barely tolerable for us, and yet a livelihood for nearly one thousand scavengers.

Afterwards, in strange contradiction, we descended the side of the mound a bit to find the Mbeubeuse community center. Clean and well-maintained, with a pleasant courtyard and a canopy for holding meetings. Its staff were well-dressed and spoke eloquent French - one even spoke quite fluent English! It stocked medecine at a community pharmacy and offered professional training, alphabetization, and even reproductive health classes for girls! Staff drank from a well only a few hundred meters from the beginning of the garbage. They explained that everyone knew it was contaminated, but the government would not give them the results of scientific tests, and besides, few people got sick. It was a strange, perhaps encouraging ending to a visit already ripe with contradictions.

We drove up the beach to eat lunch on the most beautiful and clean beach I have seen so far in Senegal, and then continued to visit the crowded, village-suburbs that have experienced the worst flooding this year. The flooding is also due to how people have used the niayes. In addition to dumps, they also became building sites for village immigrants during the '70s. No one ever stepped in to organize the housing, and so when the rains returned in force this year, and the ancient naiyes returned, people suddenly found they were living at the bottom of them.

The waters have now receded a bit. What we saw where algae-green marshes half-consuming houses in small hollows in the land, though people had already began dumping garbage in an attempt to fill them up. Dusty children chased after us shouting 'Toubab! Toubab!' as though we were in a remote village. We also visited the vast tented camps currently holding the flood victims. The government told them to clear out by January 31, but failed to construct new housing. Since camp conditions are better than those in the empoverished suburbs anyway, folks have decided to stick around.

So there. I've now dumped out my recollections and can get on with business here. To update actual events, CIEE's new professor for the environment course has turned out to be my best contact yet. He seems enthusiastic - and more importantly has a little bit of time - to work with me and knows intimately in region in which I might work. He advised me (as have many others) to just leave now to visit the southeast. Once I've found places to stay, contacts, and a more specific research topic than: "Connaisance communautaire des changes environnementales" I can return to Dakar to write up the details, read a few articles, and pack up my bags. I just need to finish my French CV and lettre d'introduction and give these to EcoYoff, the NGO which also seems enthusiastic - though has absolutely no time - to work with me. They do the paperwork and make the call to introduce me to the village of Medina Kouta, south of Tambacounda and on the border of le Parc National de Niokola Konda, and I'm off. See you next post.

mardi, janvier 31

Tënjjkat yi

'The mourners.' (continued from the last entry)

No time was wasted the morning of Jean's death. The men of the house, being Jean's son Christian and Ernestine's brother Denis, moved straight into action as if the routine had been built into their bodies beforehand. After only a few moments of weeping, doors where propped open, the furniture hefted over to the neighbors', and plastic chairs rented out from across Mermoz. I tagged along, occasionally trying to ask how I could help.

In a matter of no time people were flowing into the house. At first I thought that as a member of the family, my presence was needed by my mother and grandmother. But with the entrance of each of Jean's or Ernestine's relatives or friends, I felt more and more estranged from the family.

I think now I better understand the limitations of fitting into a family in this culture. At the time of Jean's death, I'd lived in the Kayounga household for 4 months. I'd helped out with household chores and been helped a whole lot more with my own. I'd chatted and joked with Ernestine and Meme over lunches and dinners. I'd sought consel, been scolded, and given advice. I'd known Jean better than many in the last few months of his life. But when it came down to it, I wasn't flesh and blood. And there's no getting past that.

I was confused by the cultural rules and traditions governing the events after Jean's death and frustrated by the distance between me and the women of the house. While before I'd constantly chatted with Ernestine or Meme, now I could only offer hushed and formal greetings amongst a sea of guests. My presence in the house felt almost like an affront to the family. I was an obvious stranger surrounded by the hushed and disapproving mourners. I could not possibly explain what the heck I was doing amongst the family.

But let me get away from these gloomy meditations and explain what actually goes on in a modern day Senegalese-Catholic-Cap Verdian-Mankagne funeral. Beginning with Ernestine's simblings and friends from Dakar and ending with Jean's entire extended family from Casamance and numerous dignitaries from various stages of his life, the house filled to the brim with guests, and then overflowed.

I never thought I'd end up citing my Senegalese Society and Culture course, but a passage from Mariama Ba's "Une si longue lettre" stuck in my mind in the first days after Jean's death. After the death of her husband, Ba describes the friends and relatives who come to pay him respects once dead - and coincidentally, to drink and feast - guests who had never once visited him while sick. Ernestine had told me the story of how Jean's friends had abandoned him once he could no longer leave the house, and I could only bite my lip as those who'd never visited during my stay in the household now came to occupy it.

(more to come when I have the time.)