Senegalese Music and Dancing

Hi Blogworld! Sorry for the absence, I hope to be more dedicated in my updating fromhereonout.

It’s a great opportunity to blog because it is RAINING at this moment! It also happens to be the last day of Ramadan, and you know what that means – Party tomorrow KORITE! Updates and pictures to come.

Until then, I want to talk about Senegalese tunes and moves.

Senegalese people LOVE dancing,  Different ethnic groups have their own styles, but the arena is a drum circle Sabaar that can last until the wee hours of the morning. (Don’t forget to pack your earplugs). I remember the third or fourth day I was in Senegal, we had a drum circle at the training center. At first, I thought people were tricking us. Is that really dancing here!? I asked myself. Once I realized arm-flailing was no joke, I quickly fell in love. Here’s a decent example I found on Youtube, though our Sabaars in Kebemer are more of the sand-floor, basic tent or open sky variety.

Traditional Senegalese drumming married Western pop melodies somewhere along the way and begat Mbalax, a glorious, glorious genre. Here are some of the most popular artists and some of the songs I most frequently hear playing from people’s cell phones, radios, music video TV channels, party speakers, and so on.

Titi in Jigeen Feem

Babacar Seck

Pape Diouf in DIOFIOR

Youssou Ndour  in Xale Bi


Papa Ndiaye Guewel in Ratale – more traditional, less pop

And then, no blogpost about Senegalese music would be complete without a shout out to P Square and Akon (Senegalese!) and Shakira. In my 10 months here, I have heard these songs more than I’ve ever heard anything, I do believe. Oh, and Rihanna. Just Rihanna.


Waitin’ On the Rains

It’s a busy time of year for farmers everywhere in Senegal. Fields are being cleared, seeds gathered, fertilizers bought and fences repaired as we wait on the rains to arrive in Kebemer. In the south of Senegal, they’ve been having fairly regularly rains for a month or two now, but the farther north you go, the more Sahel you get, and there’s not much water in the desert. So for now, we continue to watch the sky, eat madd and mangoes (gotta love the seasonal fruit), and talk to each other about how it’s bound to rain any day now.

Senegal seasons are three: hot, dry; hot, rainy; and cool, dry – in that order. I prefer to not take temperature readings at site, but I’ll say hot season is hot. The kind of hot that makes you want to bucket bathe in warm water anyways just to have it evaporate off you to cool you down. The kind of hot that makes you question the point of drinking water if you sweat it all out in a matter of minutes, and you can’t filter your water as quickly as you drink it. But it’s also the kind of hot that means no one is doing anything for hours during the day, and you get to nap in the shade with friends and family and wake up only to complain about the heat, drink some ice water, and go back to napping. I am lucky, however, that Kebemer is near enough to the coast that nights cool down considerably. Further inland, they brag about temperatures like an occasional 130 F, to give you a reference point. Senegal’s hot, but you adapt.

But that season is winding down, and I’m SO excited to hear rain again. It hasn’t rained since the first week I arrived here, last September. We’ll soon be getting all the year’s rainfall within the next few months. As you know, plants need water to grow, so that also means all large-scale field crop agriculture in Senegal is limited to the rainy season. The five major crops in Senegal are peanuts, millet, rice, corn, beans and sorghum. Rice and corn don’t do well in Kebemer’s area (light, sandy soil. scarce organic matter. 45 meter water table), so farmers grow a lot of peanuts, beans, millet and some sorghum.

Besides agriculture activities, rainy season creates flash flooding issues in some parts of the country, and malaria transmission skyrockets, with standing rainwater creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Soil erosion is also a big issue here – with strong, desert winds from the North and water erosion during the rains.

Finally, after the rainy season is over, Senegal starts to cool down beautifully and becomes perfect gardening weather. After the heat 70s? 60s? feel so cold, Senegalese (and me!) don their giant puffy coats like should be worn in Northern Michigan’s dead of winter, and go around talking about how the cold is scary. I love it.

And here’s a picture of a neat tree near my house, to reward you for reading 5 paragraphs about the weather.

A Baobab tree in Kebemer, these guys are slow growing and can be thousands of years old! They also bear tasty fruits that Senegalese women make into little frozen sachet-treats that I buy daily during hot season.

A Baobab tree in Kebemer, these guys are slow growing and can be thousands of years old! They also bear tasty fruits that Senegalese women make into little frozen sachet-treats that I buy daily during hot season.

I just returned home from a “work” week in Kedougou where I swam in the Gambian river (and later a pool!), ate the best avocados of my life, saw a lot of monkeys, and stressed out over a Peace Corps conspiracy plan involving 3 kinds of fish for the duration of my 104.3 fever. A wind funnel carried away my friend’s bug hut, and IT. WAS. HOT. All in all, a pretty wild place, that Kedougou.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

Talibe – The Begging Kids

Being a Peace Corps volunteer in an urban site, I encounter begging children in the streets every time I walk outside. Senegal is unique among developing countries with the Talibe – village children studying in urban Koranic “boarding” schools and often sent out to the streets to beg. A pillar of Islam is the giving of alms, but besides a ton of Talibe children and the occasional handicapped adult, I really see no other begging in Kebemer. The history behind the Talibe is COMPLICATED, as well as the different types of Tailbe kids and Darra schools, but their presence in Senegal is deeply rooted in the culture. You can check this out for more info, or utliize your google skills to learn more about the fascinating, controversial topic. For this post, I’ll just share my experiences thus far.

When I first arrived in Senegal, I was unsure how to deal with the Talibe, and not much has changed in that regard. Senegalese people tend to ignore them, and I did that for a while. Once that strategy made me feel like a cement chain was pulling my heart down to my bowels, I began engaging them in conversation instead. Some of the kids don’t speak Wolof, though, and some of the little ones are too scared to respond. Not to mention it’s awkward to strike up a conversation with kids after denying them money. I once made the terrible mistake of buying breakfast for about 5 tiny boys on the street, and by the time i was handing it out, I was surrounded by 30 boys of all ages, pushing and yelling. One kid even got cut by my bread knife; it was a nightmare. Everyday, every mistake here is such a learning process. I’m still trying to figure out my role in interacting with the Talibe. Giving them money is a dilemma: do you give the boy change, contributing to the system in place but maybe saving him from a beating from the maribou? Do you give only food, when really he’d rather have a coin to buy candy or meet his daily quota to take back to the school? Or do you give nothing to avoid being singled out as the white woman in the city who always has money to be hit up for?

A month ago, I traveled to Saint Louis to help out with a soccer tournament for Talibe kids. We had different stations set up to teach the kids about hand washing, an organic bug repellent to fight malaria, PC’s favorite plant moringa, and the one I helped with – microgardening. We handed out prizes of soap, toothbrushes, “healthy” moringa beignets (until it became a dangerous riot for food). But the most enjoyable part for me was face, arm, chest painting. After mistakenly painting lions on a few boys, it was made known to me that everyone was really wanting Barcelona soccer emblems. How you confuse lion and a soccer patch is a legitimate question, but I’ve now got mad skill Barce, as well as Real. I put my foot down at Chelsea.

See that white foot? That's me painting faces! This is abnormal for the day, it was usually much more crowded around the bench. Mob-like even.

See that white foot? That’s me painting faces! This is abnormal for the day, it was usually much more crowded around the bench. Mob-like even. [photo cred Lama (BFP) via Hadiel Mohamed]

Finally, this blog is a Peace Corps initiative with information on some awesome projects that some passionate, inspirational volunteers are working on. Really, they are so cool. As for me, I’m following up a project with a Koranic school a PC volunteer before me set up. Yay for gardening! More info in a future post. This is too long.

6 Months in Country!

I’ve made it 6 months! It’s so hard to believe. Although the individual days sometimes drag, the weeks and months are flying.

Random Tidbit: People here are superstitious.

  1. They don’t like to count people. When I was conducting my baseline survey at site, I had to ask, “How many people wake up in this house in the morning?” and “How many sticks of god do you have?” (meaning children). 
  2. Last night I was chastised for leaving my shoe flipped over by the mat.
  3. Tucking your shirt in is another no-no.
  4. Resting your hands on your head is a bad sign because women do that when they wail.
  5. In the lunch bowl, when someone flicks you some bitter tomato, you must eat it or you’re a witch.
  6. The most eerie: At dusk every night there is a call to prayer and the streets full of kids playing soccer, women selling fattaya, and the mosiers clear out and go inside their compounds. It’s said that witches (and cats?) walk the streets at dusk and it’s bad to be outside.

New Post!

Disclaimer: It’s been a really long time since my last post, and too much has happened to adequately blog about it.

I’m back in home sweet Kebemer after about a month of In-Service Training. We learned about a lot of Advanced Gardening/Field Crop techniques including Intercropping, Pest Management, Companion Planting, Waterharvesting Earthworks Techniques, Permaculture and more. WHEW! It was exhausting but really cool. (Side note, I’m officially in love with the 56? volunteers in our training group. What an incredible group we’ve got).

I also realized I’ve done a terrible job explaining to people back home what I’m doing here. The Peace Corps has 3 goals; here they are in my words.

  1. Development work
  2. Talk about the U.S. to Senegalese people.
  3. Talk about Senegal to Americans.

The last 2 are pretty obvious, and the first terribly vague. I’m an agriculture volunteer, and I basically get to do whatever projects I want within the broad realm of agriculture. I was placed in a city, so small scale gardening is practical; but biking out to nearby villages and working with larger scale crop production is also possible.

The Peace Corps approach to sustainable development work is grass-roots, bottom-up and person-to-person emphasized. That means I get to know people in my community first, talk to them, teach them and assist them with their ideas and projects. This approach starkly contrasts the traditional NGO presence in Senegal; namely, that is to walk into a community, hand out money and then leave. (Talk to any Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, and you’ll get a hefty rant about how this makes our daily lives oh so difficult).

So right now, I’m in the seeking-out-motivated people phase of my work. Seeking-out-people-not-just-looking-for-free-money. Here are some of the people I’ve met, to give you an idea.

  • The Senegalese Government’s Agriculture Office – Peace Corps sets all volunteers up with a counterpart at their sites. Mine works in the Agriculture Office. His main focus is a Table MicroGardening project. People are super enthusiastic about growing vegetables in tables, but there are limits to its sustainability ($$).
  • Women’s Group – Women in Senegal frequently have organized groups, and they are a great tool to use pre-existing infrastructure to reach people. I’ve made friends with the president and several women of a MicroGardening group and sat in on one of their meetings.
  • Schools – I’ve been making regular visits to 4 schools in the area: Ekol 8 and Ekol Ndakhar Syll, both primary French schools; CESSA a middle school; and a Talibe Koranic school (I’ll blog about the Talibe in a later post)
  • Khalmbane – A village just outside Kebemer, there is a big gardening group with a large field. The chief of the village is (perhaps overly?) nice.
  • Prison – There’s a pre-existing garden in the local prison and the Warden is really interested in working with me. I haven’t had time to go over there as much as I’d like to.
  • ISRA Seed Extension Program – When the rains come (around June) farmers plant their crops. Peace Corps works with the Senegalese research institute to extend improved variety seed to farmers (more drought, pest resistant, higher yield, etc). We also collect data on yields and whatnot. So I’ve been keeping my eyes open for hard-working farmers to extend seed to later on.
  • Eax et Forest – One of my favorite people in Kebemer is a man working with trees at the government office. He’s great, has worked with PC volunteers in the past, and is super motivated. Hoping to maybe do some tree trainings (fruit trees, reforestation projects) with him.

I’m probably forgetting some, but that gives you an idea of what I’ve been up to for the past couple months. I’ll try to start blogging more regularly and keep them shorter.

If anyone has any questions or has a topic they want me to write about, just holler!


Hilarious Cultural Quirks – Greetings

that you probably have to be here to appreciate

I’ve mentioned before how greetings are important, but I haven’t gone into detail. They are very repetitive and formalized with set answers, but can be pretty funny. Questions go something like, “How is your family?” “How is the heat?” “How are the mosquitos?” “Are you in peace?” “Where is _____ (any one of your 50 family members)?” and a million other parallel questions. The answers are set too, and always extremely to moderately positive like “I’m in peace” “Heat only!” “They’re over there” etc. It doesn’t really matter if you match up questions with answers, since they all pretty much fit, and throughout the exchange everybody will undoubtedly interject a few “Peace Only”s and “Praise God”s.

And then if there is a lull in the greeting chatter, people frequently start it back up with a “Ca va?” –a French greeting that has got to be spoken more in Senegal than in France itself. As if they haven’t already asked in detail 25 questions relating to “How’s it going?” Cracks me up.

Last names are also an important part of the greetings, especially with more formal, older people. You just stand there repeating each others’ names back and forth quickly. It’s really funny.  When greeting elders, religious leaders (Imams) and people of importance, not making eye contact is the more respectful thing to do. Which is opposite of our culture and hard to get used to, though Brittany would fit in well. In some of the religious sects, men and women do not greet each other which has been awkward a few times for me after I’ve extended a hand. Otherwise, hand shaking is an integral part of greeting and no inquiry about one’s health would be complete without it.

Holidays Recap from Senegal

Well, the holidays came and went full of bittersweet celebrations with new friends. Starting the celebrations my sister had a wedding party in a neighboring village. We all got dressed up, loaded up in the back of this truck, and took off.

Maybe 12 women total? On the way back, everyone took off their shoes and put them in a bucket. I couldn't get a straight answer for why.

Maybe 12 women total in the back of the truck? On the way back, everyone took off their shoes and put them in a bucket. I couldn’t get a straight answer for why.

The Beautiful Bride and her under-dressed friend at a very Senegalese-angle (think Myspace era aesthetics)

The Beautiful Bride and her under-dressed friend at a very Senegalese-angle (think Myspace era aesthetics)

Christmas was a great time including killing and cooking a chicken, eating a LOT of cookies, pumpkin bread, salads, mac n cheese, mulled wine, tapalapa — basically my dream weekend. It wasn’t easy being away from home, but thanks to Skype, letters, presents and Christmas decorations from home and the company of my wonderful fellow volunteers, we all made it through.

Our Christmas card featuring chicken feet (Christmas dinner) and canned snow (courtesy of my lovely mother)

I rang in the “New Years” like this at 8 pm and then peacefully slept through the turn of 2013 with a belly full of sparkling grape juice. Wild night, eh?

This was the most flattering of all the self-portraits I took, though it may give a skewed perception of my enthusiasm of spending New Years Eve alone in my room...

Believe it or not, this was the most flattering of all the self-portraits I took, though it may give a skewed perception of my enthusiasm of spending New Years Eve alone in my room

Then the next morning it was off to the Maggal Touba– a huge annual pilgrimage one of the Islamic brotherhoods takes– at 5am, which means 730 am SenegalTime. They celebrate the exile of their leader with a ton of eating and drinking (soft drinks) and, for the women, at least, gossiping while lounging in rooms covered wall to wall with mattresses to accommodate all the guests descending on the city.

Note: Her Crayola Dress. The prayer scarf on my shoulders -you have to cover your head as a woman in Touba

My mom in her Crayola Dress. And me with a prayer scarf on my shoulders -you have to cover your head as a woman in Touba when you go outside


Street corner of Touba. Note the megaphones on the corner. The covered the city chanting/singing nonstop along with these posters everywhere of the brotherhood leader

Then, just a few near-death incidents later….involving donkey carts, speed bumps on highways, a fenderbender, clouds of dust requiring medical-grade masks, stand still traffic, unmarked lanes, engine trouble (maybe battery related?), subsequent pushing of the car down the street, and getting lost once……..We made it back to the house alive! And, kids, that’s how I started 2013.

Wolof Proverbs

A few proverbs to illustrate some facets of the culture here.

Slowly, slowly to catch a monkey in the forest.
 ndank ndank mooy jaap golo ci ñaay.
The first proverb I learned and the one I most often utilize, this guy is kind of our equivalent “Slow and steady wins the race,” substituting our tortoise and hare for a monkey and trapper. I throw this down on a daily basis whether being praised or harassed for my Wolof skills. It’s easier than explaining the plateaus and challenges involving language acquisition. (Side note, I’ve only seen one monkey so far which I’m quite fine with. I was driving by and saw him walking along the dirt road. My time in Costa Rica taught me monkeys are exciting and exotic the first time you see them, and quickly become terrifying shortly after).

I won’t buy a serpent in the hole. duma jend jay ci pax.
Everyone tries to rip everyone off here, and it’s only worse (I hate to say) if you have pale skin. So you never pay for anything until after you have it, and then try to pay with exact change if possible. It’s a lesson everybody has to learn the hard way once, and then you will always remember. You can also use this in jest when telling people you’ll sell your age if they’ll do a certain dance move, which I frequently do.

People are medicine for people. ñit ni lay garabam.
A beautiful (and difficult for us Americans who value privacy and solitude) aspect of Senegalese culture is the importance placed on community, relationships and simply being together. Sitting, shooting the shit and joking with each other are their cure-alls.

A stick that has a long time in the water does not change into a crocodile. bant lu mu yagg yagg ci ndox du sopëliku jesig.
No matter how much I integrate, become fluent in Wolof, tie babies on my back and learn to cook Senegalese dishes, I’ll still be an American. I’ll still be me. And more surprisingly, I’ve found I identify as a Southerner first, and an American second. Who would have thought?

Debt does not have a younger sibling. bor du am rakk.
People ask each to loan them money all the time here, and in the culture it’s not acceptable to ask your friend to pay you back, no matter how big the loan is. So you never loan anyone an amount of money that you can’t bear to part with, even if it’s your sister. But I suppose you can use this for the second time someone asks you for money. I’m really wary of being viewed as another walking NGO-handout by my community, so I never loan anyone money and have never actually said this to anyone.

You are asking a frog about his tail. dangay laaj mbot u genam.
Basically to use when you’re asking a nonsensical question, like something a crazy person would ask. I don’t really ever use this one, but a friend of my family’s taught it to me and I thought it was a little funny, so I included it.

A Day in the Life – Morning Edition

Every morning I wake up to the mosque chanting the call(s) to prayer before sunrise, and lay in bed until my alarm goes off at 7. My emotions during this dark time range from rage to romantically feeling like “I’m in Africa!”. (I imagine exercise will worm its way in at this time, once I figure out how. The one time I ran, a piece of glass went through my Vibram, and my calves hurt for 2 days. Deep sand is deep.) Opening my east facing windows, I spy a lovely sunrise and settle down to drink a cup of Nescafe and powdered milk while working a crossword puzzle that I never finish. Settling down means sitting on my stool that I asked some carpenters to craft last week; I cannot go on enough about how life changing it is to have something to sit on. Those first mornings were rough. It’s worthwhile noting the mosquitos are raging at this hour. Once I’ve given up on the puzzle, I get ready for the day, pack a backpack and fill up my water filter. I bike to the government agriculture office a little before 9 and stop on the way for breakfast from my favorite lady. There I join some people eating in silence on benches arranged in a horseshoe around the chef, Psiu Nabu Diop. The benches are surrounded by hanging sheets, giving an illusion of privacy. My bean sandwich costs 150 CFA, 30 US cents. I work at the office here until 1 when we break for lunch until 4. That’s three hours of lunch break, in case you missed it. Senegal shuts down for lunch, especially during the hot season. I bike home and relax until lunch and sweep.

To be continued, I’m tired.