Sunday, January 16, 2011

Surprise trip home.

So I’m going to back in the States for a quick trip to help my mom out. She’s moving across the city. I don’t know for sure that I’m ready for a trip home, but this seems like one of those things you do for the people you love.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what is so terrifying about the prospect of being back over there. It is not the piles of guacamole and potato tacos I’m going to devour. It’s not the daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s not the constant access to hot showers and flush toilets and air conditioners and space heaters. It’s not the long flights, though I do hate flying and dread and begrudge every hour spent in the air. It isn’t the prospect of putting on socks for the first time in two years, and seeing my friends and family again.

America should be an appealing place to go, by any standard. Even though I can no longer tolerate dairy products or temperatures under 70 degrees with anything like comfort, this jaunt across an ocean and a continent should be something I look forward to.

Maybe I should take a step back. When I talk about America with my host family or other Senegalese people, lots of things surprise them or leave them thinking a little differently about the world. Yes, I explain, in response to the constant commentary on how wealthy all white people are. America does have a lot of money, it’s a very rich place. But there are affluent places and poor places in the States, just like we have here in Senegal: places like Dakar, places like the village. Places with plenty, places with nothing. People are often very curious (and sometimes rather abrasive) about the fact that at 24, I’m not married. Senegalese women of my age have three children and a fifth-grade education. Since I am invariably uninterested in the Senegalese men who approach me, and sometimes extremely rude in response to their advances, I’m something of an anomaly.

Another thing that surprises people here is my description of how people relate to each other in the States. No one makes eye contact or greets with strangers in the street? Families live hours and hours away from their “close” relations? Children leave the houses of their parents when they turn 18? The physical and emotional distances are unthinkable for Senegalese people.

Relate is one of those words that’s changed in meaning since I came here. The Wolof word bocc is both a noun and a verb, not unusually in this language. It is how you would describe your blood relations, your family, but it also means to share.

Both concepts, family and sharing, are more expansive here than they are in the States. Any man of my father’s generation in my village is also someone I could call my father or my uncle, and anyone as old as my Grandmother Bodey is my grandparent as well. There aren’t that many last names in Senegal, maybe fifty or so, but everyone with my last name is also my bocc. Crowing wealthy fat women in cars to Dakar are delighted to find out that their little sister and I have the same first name. It establishes something between us, even though it’s obvious that my name isn’t actually Aissa, even if the time in which we actually share a physical space is limited to five hours or so, and we never meet again after that.

Sharing in Senegal is different too. Every day before lunch, my compound and the family closely related to us next door switch plates of food. It doesn’t matter if the two dishes are different and one family is worse off for having swapped a plate of fish and vegetables for a bowl of plain, dry rice. The households always share and never begrudge anything. Anyone passing through or by the compound at lunch or dinnertime is called in to share the meal, even if it’s just a bite, even if they’re a stranger here. Children who come upon a piece of hard candy will split it with their back teeth and hand out tiny fragments to each of their friends, anyone who’s present. Can you imagine asking an American four-year old to split a Jolly Rancher with her friend? Wouldn’t happen.

I know I’ve commented on this before, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Life in Senegal, especially in rural areas, is a constant stream of reminders of how connected we are to the people around us, how vital others are to our own existence and happiness, and what our role and position is within the group. When two people meet and go through the greeting ritual, they will repeat each other’s last name over and over again. Even if they’re just saying good morning, it can go on for a while. Recognizing someone and saying their last name is a way of affirming for that person that she has a place here, that she has relationships in the village, that she’s connected to everyone. It’s how you say that you’re home, and that the person you’re speaking with belongs here too.

The same type of thing happens at events, too. Everyone in the village, and many people from nearby places, shows up for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. No matter how affluent the couple getting married or the family of the new mother, all the people coming to celebrate the occasion will bring some money, a length of fabric, or a new cooking pot as a gift. They know that on the occasion of a birth, death, or wedding in their house, all the same people will reciprocate. When I imagine all the property that changes hands, and especially when I think of how the money gets passed back and forth, I imagine a vast net that stretches all over Senegal, holding people close, leaving no one out.

It’s all something we miss out on in the States. There’s less need for a constant reminder that we are not alone, perhaps. We have cell phones and the Internet and a reliable postal service, after all. But there’s also less need for closeness and trust. Here, you buy vegetables from your aunt and bread from your dad and you go the carpenter that your family always goes to and you get your clothing made at the same tailor as all of your most stylish friends. In the States, we can trust that products and services are going to be of a certain quality, that doctors are trained well, that cars won’t just give out, that we’ll never be stuck on the side of the road, miles and miles from home. Here in Senegal, none of that is guaranteed. So if the car you’re in breaks down, it’s midnight, and you’re hours from a major city, it helps to know that you can walk into the nearest village, pick any compound, and find a family there. The family will offer you food and water, and probably you’ll be welcome to spend the night, and odds are they’ll know someone who’s going to be headed in your direction tomorrow: would you like a ride?

When I left the States, I left behind a lot of important relationships. I know they’re still there, at least for the most part. They’re more real, in many ways, than what I have here in Senegal. After all, sometimes people are nice to me because my skin is white. But there’s something so easy to trust here, something I know I can rely upon. I don’t have to work at relationships or try to build stronger ties. I can disappear and come back the next day, the next month, the next year, and the reaction from my family would be the same when I walked back into the compound: quiet happiness, fuss-free greetings, and a quick reintegration back into the fold, the daily life, the closeness and community. They can’t imagine that I could change in any significant way.

I can’t be sure that it’ll be so easy when I come home to the States. The family across the country, the friends I left two years ago with sadness; I’ll see some of them again soon, but then I’m leaving again for Senegal. Senegal is not a place I’m ready to leave, and the States is not a place I’m ready to live again. This trip will be a little bit of an experiment in coming home, and while I’m happy to do it, I’m more sure of what I’ll feel landing again in Dakar than touching down in Los Angeles.

Love and guts,

- Jessie

P.S. See you soon. Which is good news, really.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy (Holi)Days

I have never been much of a holiday person. Even when I was a little kid, I think a slightly arrogant precocious skepticism in me ruined Christmas for my mom. Not that I was one of those people who sensed the beginning of the holiday season with gloom, either. I just never got that attached to the various mythologies of the holidays.

In any case, I usually enjoy occasions. People bustling around being friendly, good food, etc. What’s not to love? There’s one type of holiday person who does manage to get very much on my nerves, however. She’s the one who organizes the parties and finds the decorations and bakes the 16 types of reindeer cookies. Generally people follow along and get excited with her, so she is rarely disappointed with the reception of her Christmas eve cocktail party, which is inevitably followed by her Christmas morning breakfast buffet, which finally culminates in her Christmas day feast.

On the other hand, if you’re someone like me, who doesn’t dislike Christmas so much as feels rather apathetic to the whole holiday thing in general, beware. This is the time of year to keep your mouth shut. Anyone who has the nerve to be less exuberant about the holiday season than this person, no matter the reason, is not simply allowed to do her own thing, go her own way, attend only the cocktail party and skip out on the buffet and feast the next morning. No, no. People like me are generally labeled the scrooge or grinch of the season.

In spite of my seasonal wariness of good cheer, I had three very nice holidays recently. Thanksgiving was spent with the other volunteers of the Kaolack region in our regional house. The kitchen is tiny and not particularly well founded in pots and pans and spices. Somehow, though, the volunteers doing the cooking put three turkeys on the table, a bunch of pies, and a forest of side dishes. In a country where real milk (not powdered) and butter (instead of margarine) are luxuries, and where you have to go all the way to the capital to find things like plums, celery, mushrooms, basil, and quality cheese, these guys put nothing short of a feast out there for us all. (And, I’ll say, they did it without being the type of people I described above.) Anyway, it was delicious.

Some friends and I were treated to another fine meal on Christmas eve. The parents of a good friend came out to visit, and they treated us all to dinner at one of the classiest places in Dakar. The meal was, of course, incredible. So was the people-watching. There aren’t that many Christians in Senegal, so I expected the restaurant to be mostly packed with the Lebanese and ex-pat population of Dakar. Not so. For every table of awkward Americans, there were two of three of Senegalese, plus the occasional Lebanese family, among others. When every table was seated and the place really got bustling, we began to hear the familiar beats of Senegalese music floating over from a big concert next door. More than just the beats, actually: we probably couldn’t have heard it any better had we paid for tickets instead of dinner. As the Christmas eve wine began to take hold, whole tables of young men and women leapt to the small center area of the restaurant, right in front of our table, and started dancing wildly. Beautiful flowing Senegalese fabrics, sharp leather dresses, brightly colored veils and scarves everywhere. They danced together, falling into something between what you would see in an American club and what I see in the village at baptisms and weddings. It was exuberant, unscheduled, unimposed merriment, and everyone in the restaurant shared it, no matter who they were, what they were, or what they thought they were celebrating. Merry Christmas, indeed. Or merry something, anyway. The merry part is enough for me, when it’s real. And it was, that night.

I had been in Dakar for a few days at this point, and since I’m at that point in my service where the end of my time in village is in sight, I hurried home to Ndiago for New Year’s. We had a beautiful, simple, delicious night at home on New Year’s Eve. I was actually surprised that anyone took much notice of the new year anyway, since Senegalese villagers have little need of the calendar we use in the States. Time is held together by Islamic holidays, planting and harvesting times, and the weekly communal prayer and market days. Days aren’t numbered or assigned to months unless you’re waiting for a remittance from your husband who’s working in Dakar. Nevertheless, the women cooked delicious holiday dinner dishes and made an incredibly sugary beverage with milk and tea and mint candies, and everyone stayed up talking and drinking until they were tired enough, even with all the excitement, to go to bed. That was when the old year passed, for them: when they were ready to sleep.

Holidays are a reminder of what we already know: that food is delicious, that we love our family and friends, that we can never get enough of counting our blessings. It’s not about something that happens once a year, but about what happens every day. What I love in this time of year is that we are given more opportunity to be thoughtful about all that. Christmas isn’t a single day, a blowout event, a thing that’s contained, and neither is Thanksgiving or New Year’s. The single big feast, the ceremonial lighting of the tree, the conviction that this day is special in any way all seems short-sighted to me, and perhaps that’s why the grinch label sticks. But to me, anyway, a holiday is whenever you’re merry, whenever you’re full of delicious food and surrounded by friends and the people you love.

Every Senegalese holiday has this feeling to it, and so does every baptism and wedding in the village. Every new life, every holy moment, every feast day is an opportunity to get together, eat until you can barely think, and then dance your brains out with your family and friends (which, in the Senegalese sense, are one and the same). No grinch am I, then. At least not in Senegal. It’s not that the holidays aren’t important to me; it’s just that every day has something holy to it. So happy Thanksgiving, merry Christmas, and happy new year to all of you. I hope you have a lovely January 4th as well.

Love and guts,