All posts by senamerican

Now What?

                                                             NOW WHAT?

Dear readers,

I am back, and I am sorry for such a long silence. At this junction, I felt the need to write on the blog, again. There is this urgency that took hold of me as we entered January and the inevitable is upon us. You know what I am talking about. The 45th President of the United States of America is going to be inaugurated on January 20th, and I cannot help but feel restless, and continuously disappointed with how the 2016 presidential elections unfolded.

I was super excited about this election, even more so than in 2008 when the possibility of the first Black President gave us hope for progressive change, and made many of us root for Barack Obama. This election was a milestone for me. I was going to have my voice heard after years of sitting on the sidelines and watching. As a recently naturalized citizen and a first time voter (Yes, I am ashamed to confess that I never voted in Senegal, although I was the first to complain about the government), I could not wait to cast my vote. I registered as undecided and studiously read about the history of both major parties. I followed the campaign closely and leaned toward Bernie, though the possibility of having the first Woman President took over my heart most of the time. When it was clear that Bernie would not be the democratic nominee, I easily went with Hillary. I watched all debates and was confident that her opponent had no chance at winning. Not because I underestimated him, but because I overestimated the American people’s goodness, their tendency to fight for justice, and their ability to think for themselves. However, when I saw his rallies on television and listened to people around me, I was shocked that so many, especially women, found him capable of assuming the highest office in our democracy. The realization that such a large number of people espoused his scary ideas was overwhelming.

I voted early in my state to make sure I did not miss out on the opportunity. I proudly wore my “I voted” sticker all day, and smiled every time I looked at it. I was elated, and proudly American. I guess like many of you, I was too arrogant and comfortable in my belief that she would win. I did not necessarily agree with all she stood for, but the alternative was not an option for me, and I liked to believe that it was not the option for most Americans. Although it is true that the majority of Americans voted for her, he still won, and THAT, is the truth that we need to face. A good number of Americans thought that his rhetoric and propaganda were what they needed, and went out in numbers to have their voices heard.

My nervousness turned into shock when he won. I did not know what to tell my children when they woke up excited that she had won. My daughter cried, and my son sat on his bed, silent. I hugged them and held my tears. I realized then that they went to bed in one country, and woke up in a very different one. One in which we might have to fight harder than even before, to matter. I considered taking everything I own and run back to Senegal. As the Wolof saying goes: daw ca ba ngay ami tank [One should run while one has legs]. Yes, I freaked out. At work, my colleagues cried with me. Without telling me, they had worried about me because they saw me as one of the people he was targeting in his speeches and tweets: I am an immigrant, a Muslim, and a woman. Their support showed me that many Americans were not happy he won.  After the initial shock, I was numb for days.

Now, the man who vowed to deport millions of immigrants and block another million of Muslims from entering the US, a man who was caught on tape talking about women as objects with no value that he could use and discard at his will, is going to head the most powerful country in the free world. This worries me so much that sometimes I do not sleep well at night. I am worried about the future, and I cannot find peace in knowing that America is a strong democracy with a majority good people who would not stand aside and let him have his way. I am worried about the future of my children who know no other country but this one. However, when I thought more about going back to Senegal, I was reminded that this country is mine too. I have lived here most of my adult life, and my children were born here and know no other home. They have the right to this country as much as I have a right to Senegal.

It is only few days before his inauguration. My shock and panic are dissipating slowly and I have come to terms with the inevitability of his presidency. However, I will not be disempowered. I have decided that he may have won the electoral vote, but he will not win over me. During the first weeks after the elections, I hesitated to answer people’s eternal question “where are you from?” These days I respond: “I was born and raised in Senegal, but I am an American too.” Depending on how the conversation carries, I might add: “I am a Muslim too.” If they voted for Uuru Aara[1], they would know that I am pretty much the sum of all identities whose rights he promised to alienate. But they would also see that I am here, I am staying, and I am not afraid.

As always, your comments and feedback are welcome. I’ll be thrilled to hear your experiences with this year’s elections and how you feel about the future.

Senamericanly yours.

[1] In Wolof culture when you are upset with someone and do not want to utter their name, you call them Uuru Aara, which does not really have a literal meaning but is understood as “the one whose name I do not want to utter.”

Marriage in Displacement

Several readers have been requesting a post on marriage and immigration. I would like to start a series on the topic based on this episode of the talk show Thiowli Thiowli, which airs on the Senegalese television channel 2S TV. For my non-Wolof-speaking readers, Thiowli Thiowli is a term that means: the buzz, or the talk of the town, for lack of a better English translation. This show addresses all kinds of issues within contemporary Senegalese society and its diaspora. This episode was on the topic of marriage and immigration and heavily focuses on Senegalese immigrants in Italy. However, I think the points raised can be applied to Senegalese immigrants in the US.

As it is obvious, the conversation is between a panel of men and a panel of women. The younger-looking men are Senegalese immigrants in Italy, and the older gentleman in yellow, is a culture authority who serves as the national master of ceremony for wrestling events. The woman in blue―who seems to monopolize the microphone —is an immigrant in Italy, and the lady in the middle was married to a Senegalese immigrant for eight years and stayed in Senegal to wait for him. Later, she found out that her husband was with another woman and she decided to divorce him. The older woman in brown has sons who live with their wives in Italy.

The men are claiming that when Senegalese women are taken to Europe (or America), as wives, they end up changing by adopting behaviors that are not culturally Senegalese. They claim that Senegalese immigrant women are often in pursuit of material gain and neglect their roles as wives. They do not cook every day, are not often available for sex, and build houses in Senegal without their husbands’ knowledge. On the other hand, the women are accusing the men of neglecting their financial duties, going outside the marriage, and expecting too much of their wives.

In this conversation, it is apparent that the parties do not speak on the same level of understanding of what it means to be married. One can see that the men are claiming a privilege that the Senegalese culture seemingly bestowed on them, to which their wives are expected to cater to. On the other hand, the women are speaking about being humans with rights and aspirations that should not be smothered by marriage.

I think the main issue is in the understanding of the concept sëy. The Wolof word sëy has several meanings based on how it is used in a sentence. It can be a noun as in sëy bi [the marriage], it can also be an active verb sëy na [she has married] yaay sëy [you are the one who is married, or you are the one who in engaged in the practice (or even business) of marriage]. Used as an active verb, it can also mean to have sexual intercourse. For this post, we will focus on the first two meanings. When used as an active verb in this conversation, it is understood as the practice or business of being married, and is readily accepted by both parties as something that only women engage in: “You bring a wife for her to engage in the practice of marriage for you.” “You have a husband and your only desire is to beautifully engage in the practice of marriage for him.” This understanding of sëy as something that only women should do, was brought about by virilocality, the practice of having a wife leave her family to go and live at her husband’s family home or compound. Because of this physical displacement, it is understood that a woman who has taken a dowry and joined a man, is coming to complete a service, therefore, dafa sëysi [She has come to engage in the practice/business of being married].

By definition, the practice of being married for women isn’t just limited to taking care of a husband, obeying him, never talking back to him, keeping a household, making and taking care of children, etc. It also entails knowing how to negotiate with in-laws, his friends and everyone else who is near or remotely associated with the husband. It also involves putting the husband’s needs as the priority in one’s life by foregoing every aspiration should they be a deterrent to making a husband happy. It is understood as something that a woman is practicing and aims to master in order to acquire the ultimate title of sëykat or a master in the art of being married. In Senegal, when a woman is designated as sëykat, one can infer that she has put the needs of her husband and his family as the priority in everything she does or says by being completely devoted to earning their praise and validation. She has suffered all kinds of mistreatment because it is believed that the woman who is a sëykat, would have successful children, therefore a mother’s sacrifice becomes a reward for her children as in the Wolof proverb liggeeyu ndey aňup doom [A mother’s work is lunch for her child], meaning that by working hard in the practice of sëy, a mother guarantees her children a prosperous and dignified future.

Because of this notion that wives are those who should engage in the practice of being married, many women whose husbands are abroad are sent to their in-laws’ homes as tokens. Some wait for years and contribute considerable labor, often without much financial benefits because the family-in-law controls everything the husband sends. The lucky ones might join their husbands after long periods of waiting, but many end up divorcing and starting life from scratch after having sacrificed years for the benefit of their families-in-law. These women often had given up an education, or a job, to wait for a husband who might never come back to Senegal.

The recurrent complain on the side of the men is that they left a brother or an uncle and instead, spent money taking their wives abroad. This implies that in their understanding of the political economy of immigration, the position of a wife and that of a brother or an uncle are interchangeable, and in this case the latter is more beneficial because a brother or an uncle would work to enrich the family as the show’s host points out, while the wife who did not abide by the husband’s expectations is a wasted investment because she is working to enrich herself and her own family. The way the men talk about it, women should be thankful to their husbands for bringing them abroad when they could have taken so many other family members, as the man in the brown outfit says: “The one who brought you abroad, you do not have his payback.” This rhetoric suggests that husbands do their wives a favor by allowing them to go abroad, and by virtue of that whatever the wife earns should belong to the husband, as in the proverb: “A hen and its eggs both belong to the owner of the hen.”

This conversation overlooks several points. Not all immigrant women were brought abroad by husbands. The trend in immigration has shifted and more and more women are initiating their own exile, looking for better economic opportunities, just like men. Several met or brought their husbands abroad. It is unfair to expect such a woman to renounce her career or professional goals (unless it was her own choice) in order to exclusively keep a home.

When women leave Senegal, whether to join a husband or on their own, they have the same financial obligations (if not more) as male immigrants do. Even if their husbands are helping, it is likely not enough to fulfill the demands at home. While both male and female immigrants send remittances regularly for the upkeep of their families, women are often the ones who continue to contribute money for other family transactions that men often find futile such as sukaru koor, ndawtal, ndeyale, turandoo, diaxal and all other kinds of teranga that both their families and in-laws expect them to fulfill. Most immigrant women do not indulge these requests because they are more generous or enjoy spending money on trifles. They do it because unlike the men, they are more likely to be criticized for having overlooked these cultural courtesies.

Another important point that is not brought up in this conversation is that most Senegalese households (at least in urban areas) have maids to help with household chores. Wives who work outside the home rely on other underpaid women to keep their homes, and these maids are often paid by the husband. In Europe and in America, no one can afford such luxury and immigrant women do everything by themselves on top of working outside the home.

However, in this debate, it looks like each party wants it both ways, as the French would say, ils veulent le beurre et l’argent du beurre. They want the butter and the money for the butter. As the man in brown says: If you join a husband and instead of staying home and taking care of the family, you want to work outside, you must then contribute financially.” I agree with him because some women want to work outside the home and earn income, yet, they do not want to contribute financially. They want to live by the marriage expectations in Senegal which make the man the sole bread winner and the one who should be financially responsible for all the expenses. But the men also do want their cake and eat it. They want financial help from their wives who work outside the home, yet, they also want the wives to be in charge of all household chores, cook fresh meals every day. I think the issue is that among immigrants, both men and women, dreams of home and longing for the perfect life they could have had in Senegal, make them expect a lot more from each other.

My next post will be on the term “Jëkër sang la.” [A husband is a master.]

I look forward to your comments.

 

Senamericanly yours

 

Ferguson: Playing it Safe Does Not Make us Safe

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It has been three weeks since Michael Brown― an unarmed African American teenager —was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His death has sparked several days of  protest in his community and across America against the brutal execution of young black men by a majority white police. Once again, a young black man has lost his life for seemingly no reason other than the color of his skin. We know too well this scenario and how it will end up. The policeman will be found not guilty of any wrong-doing while the black community stays awake at night wondering who among them is next. It seems like there isn’t much they can do other than cry out loud that they are outraged by America’s casual acceptance of racial injustice. Amidst this tumult, I have yet to hear the black immigrant communities raise their voices against the victimization of native-born blacks. Where are the Africans, the Haitians, the Jamaicans and other black immigrant communities in the US?

African immigrants might think that we are beyond police brutality because we are different, we speak with an accent and try to raise our children to be the “good blacks,” by playing it safe, minding our  business, and abiding by the law. However, staying on the sidelines will not protect us from racism and racial profiling. The  police that killed Amadou Diallo in 1999 is the same police that is indiscriminately shooting and killing young black men in 2014. This police will not ask to hear your accent no will it inquire about where you are originally from before riding bullets across your body. More importantly, our children are not different from African Americans. They do not always speak with an accent or walk with the African swagger that we use to recognize each other. They are blacks in America. That and only that, makes them immediate targets of racial profiling, and eventually police brutality.

As  immigrants, we might feel that America is just a temporary home and that sooner or later we will go back to our countries of origin, but for now, this is where we live and work, and this is where our children were born and will likely live the rest of their lives. Right now, this is the only home we’ve got and it is in our best interest to make it safe for us. I understand that most of us do not identify with the African American community, and we should not because many of us became black when we came to America. Culturally we are different, but when it comes to racism and racial discrimination, all blacks are treated the same. Keeping quiet and telling our encounters with racism and racial prejudice only in our private homes, and acting as if whatever is happening in the black community does not concern us, will not save us. It only makes us more vulnerable because when racial injustice imminently befalls our communities, we will not be equiped with the means to fight back. We need to be more involved in our communities, school boards, and local government. We need to show that we do not support the victimization of other black people by rejecting the fallacy of being “the good black” because when it comes to racism and racial profiling, all blacks whether native-born or immigrants, are suspects until proven innocent.

Few days ago, I attended a last minute event organized in my community in remembrance of Michael Brown and those killed by police brutality. There were only four of us, and I was the only black person. Sitting there and chatting with the three white participants, I wondered whether I had any business being there. Then driving home and reflecting on the events surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and now Michael Brown, I felt tremendous fear and anxiety for my sons. I imagined them as teenagers and young men, and realized that they would not look any different from Trayvon or Michael. They would wear hoodies and walk in dark alleys at night, they would go out at night to a dance club or just hang out with their friends; they will be young black men in America. This vision made me realize that I too should publicly protest the killing of Michael Brown for the human being he was, for the dreams he had that we will never see realize, and for the sake of my children, I should scream that black lives matter too. I should extend my hand to Michael Brown’s mother and tell her that I feel her pain, that I too am scared for my sons.

I am not condoning Michael Brown’s alleged crime nor am I supporting the looting and chaos that happened during the protests. I am also not  saying that all police officers engage in racial profiling. However, we do know that blacks are more likely to be arrested for routine violations and petty crimes. Since the election of Barack Obama, there seems to be an heightened fear of the black man. For these reasons, I do feel that black immigrants should have joined the protests in Ferguson, and they should have raised their voices against the shooting and killing  of unarmed young black men across America. I wrote the draft of this post on Tuesday morning last week, and on Thursday, this article appeared in the Guardian. I am glad I am not the only one who feels this way.

 I look forward to your comments.

 

Senamericanly yours

 

#Ferguson : My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint

This is by far the best reaction I have read about the events in Ferguson. Just brilliant.

Afroculinaria

“…It was the corroboration of their worth and their power that they wanted, and not the corpse, still less the staining blood.”  James Baldwin, “To Be Baptized,” from No Name in the Street, 1972

I have been asked by many people to take a close look at the Michael Brown shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri and offer my opinion.  I felt it best to take a step back and really absorb all the circulating currents of opinion and matters of fact before I made any personal pronouncements.  This is my best attempt to answer that call, hopefully soberly, responsibly and with as much restraint as I can muster in the face of this deeply American tragedy.  This is inherently a blog about food and food culture, but anyone who regularly reads this blog understands that it also is a blog about social and cultural justice.  It is clear to…

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Eid Mubarak!

Deweneti, baal leen ma aaxx, baal naa leen. Yal na ňu Yaala boole baalal, ňu fekee dewen kooraat ko ci jaamm. Bu dewen naree ňaaw, yal na mel ni ren.

This statement literally translates: “Until next year, forgive me, I forgive you. May Allah forgive us, may we live until next year and fast again in peace. If next year is not going to be pretty (good), may it be like this year.” This is the prayer (or the many variations of it) that Muslims exchange in Senegal on Korité or Eid al Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. Koor in Wolof means the period of fasting, hence Korité, the end of the fasting period. In Senegal, Korité is actually perceived as the smaller holiday compared to Tabaski or Eid El adha, which is the holiday commemorating Allah’s call to his prophet Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son Ishmael. Although most people buy new clothes for Korité, many don’t, and people do not go overboard with the preparations as opposed to Tabaski during which they spend a lot of money on clothes, shoes, and hair.

In Senegal, the routine celebration of Korité begins with communal prayer in the morning. After the prayer, it is customary to eat laax (thick millet porridge eaten with yogurt) for breakfast, and later have a copious lunch made of chicken or some other meat. In the afternoon, children dress up and go from house to house asking for ndewenal (gifts of money). In the evening, adults also dress up and visit family members and neighbors to ask for forgiveness, usually uttering the above statement at some point in the conversations. This visit or ziar is an opportunity to strengthen relationships and mend broken ones.

In my family, we gave muuru koor, (the annually required charity or Zakat al fitr) to neighbors we felt needed help. My parents would measure the number of years of each member of our family and give the equivalent in rice or millet. We took these bags of grain at night for discretion, because we did not want the eligible families to feel that the whole neighborhood knew that they were receiving charity.

It is also a practice to give parents, in-laws, and other older relatives and neighbors, suukaru koor (“fasting sugar”). During Ramadan, people consume a lot of sugar due to the preparation of juices and dishes that require sugar, probably because it is said that the Prophet Mohammed (S.A.W.) liked to eat sweets when he broke his fast. However, suukaru koor is not an Islamic requirement. It is a Senegalese cultural etiquette that shows people that you value and respect them. So those who did not fulfill this “optional” requirement during Ramadan still have until Korité, or the days immediately following the holiday, to complete it.

This side of the Atlantic, Eid al Fitr is the better known Muslim holiday because most Americans have heard about Ramadan. For this reason and because I feel the need to belong to a religious community, Korité has become a big holiday for me as well. In Senegal, like many women my age, I never went to the mosque for the Eid prayer. It is often men, children, and older women who attend the communal prayer. However, in recent years, I have attended the prayers at our local mosque, mainly to create a feel of a holiday for myself and my children. The children love going because they get to have treats after the prayer.

I still prepare laax for breakfast and cook a big meal. The children also stay home if Eid is during the school year. I have considered giving them presents on Korité instead of Christmas, but that would make them feel left out come Christmas. I have settled with giving them ndewenal on both Korité and Tabaski. Too bad they cannot go from house to house asking for ndewenal because as a child, that was the one thing I looked forward to the most on Korité.

 

Eid Mubarak!

The Changing Face of Senegal

First, I would like to apologize for the long inactivity on the blog. I have been too absorbed with work. My recent trip to Senegal reignited my need to write about life in the geo-cultural space between Senegal and America.

I was in Senegal for three weeks and I was overwhelmed by how much the country has its eyes and ears toward America. It was somewhat frustrating because in a way, I left the frenzy of American life hoping to go home to something totally different. Although the social life and warmth that I love and longed for still exist in Senegal, America seems to hover over everything people do and talk about. There is something very unsettling in the ways in which the Senegalese understand the American lifestyle. The preconceived notion that money is happiness is a huge problem. For example, I refrained from saying that I came from America because as soon as I uttered the words “Etats Unis,” the dynamics of the interactions often changed, turning me into someone who must have a higher buying power. In fact, the assumed higher buying power of immigrants seems to dictate prices and money transactions. This is confirmed by the multitude of money transfer systems that are now operating in Senegal. On top of classics like Western Union and Moneygram, there is Ria, Money Express, Joni Joni, Yooni ma Cash, and of course Wari, the most popular of money transfer systems targeting transactions within Senegal.

This rampant obsession with quick money is the reason for the increase in drug trafficking in Senegal. According to the chief of police, Senegal has become a serious transit country for hard drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and ephedrine pills. During my stay, there were several drug busts, including one where a woman had swallowed several pounds of cocaine. In another case, the amphetamines were concealed in pails of Shea butter. However, the most troubling arrest was that of an officer from OCRTIS, the very section of the Senegalese police in charge of fighting drug trafficking. The officer was arrested for possession of a large quantity of cocaine, and later his girlfriend and the latter’s mother were also apprehended. According to authorities, the band was also involved in money laundering through the purchase of real estate property, a practice many say is the reason for the numerous buildings that have mushroomed in Dakar’s skyline, in the last decade.

Like major American cities, traffic in Dakar is a nightmare, especially on Friday afternoons. It seems like everyone owns a car. This lifestyle obviously contradicts the low buying power of the average Senegalese person, but with the many banks that recently opened in Dakar, it is easy to guess that people are relying more on credit. There is also a huge gap between the rich and the poor. The traffic lights show the encounter between these two worlds when next to the expensive cars, beggars, especially women and children, stretch their hands, hoping for a window to roll and a clean hand to drop few coins, if not a bank note.

Hunger is a serious problem in Senegal and many people still live on limited resources. Food prices are high and American junk food products such as oily chips, imitation crab meat, chicken nuggets, frozen fries, and pizza are now staples of the Senegalese food culture. People eat more processed foods due to the many European-style supermarkets that have opened in major neighborhoods. Although the traditional markets are still thriving, the products are changing and because of the expensive cost of food, many Senegalese do not care much about quality as long as they are able to buy larger quantities with little money.

Senegalese television is another place where the influences of America are strong. With several television channels competing for viewers, most shows lack originality and are modeled after American ones. Morning shows such as Yewuleen, Kinkeliba, and Petit Dej… emulate Good Morning America, the Today Show, or the CBS Morning Show. There are several hosts on a cramped set where on top of news and weather updates, guests are featured on cooking, fashion, arts, and fitness. The most interesting part of these shows is that the gossip is often about American celebrities and their extravagant lifestyles, with news about Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, and Rihanna topping the charts.

There are also reality shows such as Lamb Academie where twenty five young aspiring professional wrestlers live in a mansion and compete for a final prize. This show could have been great if it were conscious of the cultural context lamb comes from. It would have been useful to introduce the cast to the folklore that traditionally accompanied wrestling, such as bakk, the art of self-praise that many wrestlers like Mame Gorgui Ndiaye excelled in. Bakk was the main entertainment during wrestling matches and contributed to the oral art of the Senegalese, particularly the Wolof ethnic group. Instead, Lamb Academie is modeled after CBS’s Big Brother and the wrestlers backstab each other to avoid elimination. The producers should have also emphasized the importance of education and leadership skills. The world of Senegalese wrestling glorifies lack of formal education and many of the champions are either dropouts or never attended school. This tendency is one of the root causes of the violence that plagues Senegalese traditional wrestling.

The Senegalese educational system continues to be a huge crisis. During my visit, the University Cheikh Anta of Dakar (UCAD) witnessed violent student strikes that left many injured and several arrested. The university which was originally designed for a maximum of 17,000 students, today counts over 80,000. Despite the attempt to relocate students to the new UCAD 2 campus, overcrowding remains a major issue and the government cannot continue to pay a scholarship to every student, which seemed to be the main reason for the recent strikes. Although the crisis of the Senegalese educational system is complex and not an easy fix, greater decentralization must be done with the creation of vocational schools in every region of the country. The government must also focus on creating jobs in order to recruit graduates.

Despite all these seemingly negative shifts, there are great things happening in Senegal. I have the feeling that the country is turning into an Anglophone one ―which in my opinion is not necessarily a bad thing because it opens up global avenues for economic and socio-cultural development. Many advertising signs are in English. It is usual to see “Total Wash,” “Nokia, Connecting People,” “le Must Have Phone,” etc. During regular conversations, I have heard people who do not necessarily understand English say “really?” or “exactly.” This to me means that Senegal is weaning itself from France and opening up to the rest of the world, especially America which has become a major destination for Senegalese migrants. I also believe the Chinese presence is a factor to this linguistic shift.

I was impressed by the resilience and creativity of the many Senegalese people who seize these global opportunities and start successful small businesses, such as the ladies who created makeshift eateries by the beach, selling fresh grilled fish, or the vendors of madd who have found a way to better commercialize this exotic fruit by seasoning it appropriately with salt, pepper, and a dab of sugar, and packaging it in attractive jars sold at traffic lights for the consumer on-the- go. I just wish the same was done with the succulent and seasonably abundant mangoes, for export.

Senegalese fashion is also thriving and the Dakar Fashion Week is a respected international gathering. Stylists like Selly Raby Kane who recently organized a fashion show at the abandoned railroad station, and my very own sister-in-law Maguette Faye Dieng at Tima Creations who is the talent behind singing diva Coumba Gawlo Seck’s exquisite dresses, do impressive work blending traditional Senegalese looks with global trends. And of course, Senegalese women remain the queens of fashion. Even though skin bleaching is still a chronic practice, that hairstyles emulate Caucasian looks with long weaves and wigs, and fake Michael Kors handbags are the latest fashion crave, Senegalese sartorial culture has immensely incorporated African prints and traditional looks.

In the community, Give1Project, founded by Thione Niang who was the President of the Young Democrats in the US and campaigned for President Obama when he was running for office, is doing an excellent job creating global leaders. Since its launch in 2009, Give1Project has now branches in many countries, including Morocco, the US and France. Its programs are cutting edge and utilize local resources. For example their monthly Give1Talks feature celebrities and entrepreneurs like Youssou Ndour who recently shared his life story on the rooftop of the Give1Project’s headquarters packed with young participants. Give1Project also has an arts program that allows young artists like Dieuwrine a Senegalese slam poet, to popularize their art and make a living off it.

And of course, the Saint Louis Jazz Festival is getting bigger every year. Sadly for me, it opened the day of my departure.

Finally, I salute a hardworking friend who grows a garden for her own homemade holistic remedies, hair and skin care products. She also rallied her neighborhood and turned a public space that was used as a dump in the past, into a beautiful community garden. It is actions like these that give me hope that after all, Senegal will be ok!

 

I look forward to your comments friends!

Senamericanly yours.

 

My Hyphenated Culinary Culture

Another place where we carry our original culture is through the foods we eat and how we cook them. I love cooking and spend a considerable amount of time in the kitchen. The majority of dishes I make are Senegalese. But Senegalese food in itself is very hybrid since like with their fashion culture, the Senegalese borrow from around the globe when it comes to food. Growing up, I thought nems (Vietnamese eggrolls) were native to Senegal because they are so ingrained in the culinary culture. Senegalese food is also heavily influenced by French and other West African food cultures. So when I say “Senegalese food,” I mean the blend of recipes that I used to eat in Senegal. But despite the fact that many dishes come from other places, one aspect of Senegalese cooking remains. No matter where the original recipe came from, Senegalese women would make it spicy and savory by marinating, stuffing and simmering everything. Looking at Senegalese women prepare food is a delight and one is tempted to say that they passionately make love to the food (It is a voyeuristic practice I indulge in when I go to Senegal.). Because of the process it takes in order to make the food savory, most Senegalese dishes take a long time to prepare. For example, it can take up to three hours to make our national thiebou djen (rice and fish).

Thiebudieune

As immigrants, we cling to our food culture like we do our languages and sometimes we feel that when we tweak or cook a recipe differently than it would have been done in Senegal, we are not getting the real deal. During my first couple of years in the US, I cooked Senegalese food only with ingredients from Senegal. Although I could find most condiments in the US such as peanut butter, dried fish, smoked catfish, or palm oil. I would delay cooking a specific dish until I made the trip to Little Senegal in Harlem and splurged from the overpriced shops where fellow country men and women abused our nostalgic palates. Coming back from summer trips to Senegal, my suitcases stunk of dried or smoked fish and other ingredients wrapped in mint leaves that did nothing to mask the smell. Once, a greyhound bus driver refused to let me on at the New York City port authority because my overstuffed suitcase smelled so bad that he feared I was carrying a dead body (This is a true story but of course it was before 9/11 or I would have been taken to the police station for questioning.)!

Yassa

The longer I stay in the US, the less inclined I am to stick to an original Senegalese recipe or cooking process. I have become more realistic in the way I cook, taking into consideration health, time and space. I have eliminated some steps of the food preparation and although one might say that it has changed the outcome, I cannot see the difference in most cases. Often Senegalese food has a lot of salt and oil, though my mother says that with the increase in food prices, the amount of oil used by Senegalese women has drastically reduced. My reduction of oil and salt in the dishes that I make is health related.  It is hard to live in America and not freak out about too much oil, salt, saturated or trans fats and other bad things found in the majority of our foods. Rossi, the practice of heating oil to its highest capacity before adding tomato paste or onions to brown, is a staple of Senegalese cooking.  But besides the trans fat it triggers, rossi also has a negative aspect related to space. In Senegal,  kitchens many kitchen are located in the yard or far enough from rooms that smell does not get spread throughout the house. Also, with the routine of burning incense daily, food smell is less likely to stick around. To the contrary, American homes are closed and kitchens are in a central part of the house. I find that when I cook, the whole house smells for days. I cannot tell you how many times I reached out for a coat in the hallway closet and smelled a blend of all the foods I prepared over the weeks.  Also, because of the amount of smoke that emerges from rossi, one runs the risk of setting the smoke detectors off like I once did cooking thiebu jen at my uncle’s apartment in Boston, causing the fire fighters to come over (another true story). So I have done away with rossi altogether. Not just because I do not want to disable the smoke detectors every time I cook, but I have also found rossi unnecessary even though I am still fascinated by how dramatically Senegalese women perform it during their cooking by masterfully swinging the ingredients into the burning oil and braving the resulting smoke with such elegance. 

In the same manner I tweak the Senegalese dishes, I also alter American recipes which are too bland for my taste. But I like to make American dishes because they are less time consuming and simpler in process. Like Senegalese food, American cuisine is also a mélange of global culinary cultures. However, unlike the Senegalese, I find that Americans seldom take risks in their cooking. Recipes are religiously followed with the exact measurements and often spices are minimal. When I make burgers, I marinate the ground beef and add herbs, orange zest, and what have you to make it as spicy and savory as possible. When I grill, I marinate the meat days ahead instead of following the American practice of rubbing it with barbecue sauce just before the grilling. American food is also very dependent on processed foods even if recipes such as pasta sauce could be made easily at home with fresh ingredients. Despite the fact that I want to accelerate the food making process, I still abide by the traditional Senegalese practice of cooking with fresh ingredients. That is one thing that I am not willing to change.

I would love to hear about your culinary practices.

Happy New Year!

Christmas Then and Now

Dear readers, I apologize for not posting for a while.

I have been reflecting on how I celebrated Christmas when I lived in Senegal and what the holiday means to me now.

Growing up, the month of December was full of anticipation and Christmas Eve was one of the most exciting days of the year. In fact, as a child I believed that Christmas was on December 24th. As a teenager, my friends and I spent months preparing for our annual Christmas Eve bash—one of the many parties held in neighborhoods by different age groups. We wrote letters of support and spent weeks walking from house to house reminding the adults that it was time for their financial contribution―as if they owed it to us. We meticulously created invitations and selected those cool peers who would receive one and those not worthy of our precious handmade cards. On the day of the party we roamed the neighbordood borrowing tables and chairs, a stereo, and audio cassettes (Yes, I am conscious that I am giving away my age!). We also prepared a precise menu, making sure the most delicious and most consistent food was the one served toward the end of the party ( almost at dawn), to entice guests to stay longer because many peers were invited to more than one party (I am winking at my fellow Senegalese readers who might recognize themselves in these memories.). I made sure I was the perfect child because my mother would use the threat of not letting me attend the bash to remind me that she was the one in control. Finally, but most importantly, we spent weeks ruminating about what to wear on that glorious night. The central market in our town buzzed with young adults, mostly women, who waited anxiously in the shops where tailors spent countless sleepless nights sewing. I witnessed women crying because the tailor did not execute their design properly, or that he simply did not have the time to make the outfit because he had taken far too many orders than he could honor. And of course, there was the hair. My sisters and I spent days and nights putting in tiny braids, sewing weaves, or subjecting our hair to several stages of straightening with harsh chemicals.

This frenzy and anticipation of Christmas in a country that is predominantly Muslim would not make sense to many outside of Senegal. On Christmas day, both Christians and Muslims said “Joyeux Noel” to each other and kissed on the cheeks. In my direct family we did not have a Christmas tree but my father often gave us a collective gift such as a new television set.  Also at one of our neighbors’ house, there was always a plastic Christmas tree in the living-room and his children received individual gifts.  One of my uncles also held a Christmas Eve get-together.  Almost everyone on my mom’s side of the family convened at his house. After partying all night, we had a family reunion on Christmas Day during which stories of the past were revived and broken relationships were mended. In the years after my sisters and I left for college, we would come home during the holidays and spend Christmas Eve in a Réveillon en Famille, eating delicious meals and watching movies that chronicled the birth of Jesus Christ, on national television. We would also spend a good part of the night reminiscing on those past Christmas Eves and telling jokes about failed outfits and hairdos.

In the United States, I often feel like I do not have the right to claim Christmas because doing so has many implications both religiously and culturally. American culture is too focused on difference and there is a huge emphasis on division whether on the basis of religion, class, race, gender, etc. I refrain from saying that I love Christmas because that might allow people to judge my religious convictions. But not doing so also emphasizes my difference and makes me vulnerable to exclusion. Before I got married and had children, I spent Christmas Day at my host parents’ home. When I moved away and going “home” to my host family became less possible, Christmas has become one of the loneliest holidays for our family. We have been living in our current community for almost seven years, but we have been invited to someone’s home for Christmas only once, and by friends who are actually an interfaith couple. Our next door neighbors are both pastors and after several failed attempts to have us join their church, I doubt they would ever consider inviting us for anything else. It is also possible that people do not invite us for Christmas because they fear they would offend our Muslim beliefs. In previous years, we had a Christmas tree with gifts under it. But as our children are growing and becoming conscious of their identity, we worry about religious confusion and try to keep Christmas low key, especially since Muslim holidays are not paid much attention in America. We still give our children gifts because we feel it is unfair to them to not participate in the cultural aspect of the holiday. It is just too hard to explain to young children why the generous chubby white man carried by flying reindeer, skipped their house during his gift-giving voyage around the world.

Almost every year, we attend a Christmas carol sing-along organized by a colleague who loves to bring people together. But every time I sit there singing about Santa Claus and his reindeer, I realize that Christmas does not mean the same to me anymore. I sometimes feel odd and needing to explain my presence. Nevertheless, I still love Christmas for the wonderful memories of home it brings every year.

Joyeux Noël and Happy New Year everyone!

The pictures above are of downtown Dakar during the holiday season.

SOMETHING LIKE HALLOWEEN BUT NOT QUITE

My daughter is very curious about how I did things when I was a child. Recently, she wanted to know what I dressed like for Halloween and was almost sad for me when I told her that we did not have Halloween in Senegal. She was shocked when I revealed to her that we do have something similar but people do not trick-or-treat for candy! How can one trick-or-treat for anything other than candy? I know those of you who are from Senegal know which holiday I am referring to, but for the sake of my readers who are not, I would like to explain Taajaboon.

Taajaboon is a celebation held on the night of Achoura or Tamxarit (Wolof) which often falls between the 9th and 10th day of the Muslim New Year. In the Muslim tradition, Achoura commemorates the day Moses freed the Jews from Pharaoh. It is meant to be a day of fasting, prayer and accomplishment of good deeds such as touching the head of an orphan or giving alms. For Sunni Muslims, the day is one of happiness and rejoicing while for Shiites, it is a day of mourning because it is also the anniversary of the decapitation of Imam Hussein at the battle of Kerbala in the year 680.

In Senegal, a majority Sunni Muslim, Tamxarit highlights the country’s religious hybridity becauseTaajaboon is not practiced in other Muslim communities and the whole celebration combines elements of indigenous religions with Islam. Tamxarit is celebrated with a copious dinner made of millet couscous and a fancy lamb or chicken stew. Adults would spend the day saying verses of the Koran on their rosaries. However after dinner, families would take turns saying three consecutive wishes on the back of a bowl (usually the one they ate dinner from) and turning it over to the ground at the end of each wish. Later that night, children, and adults who feel like it, would cross-dress, paint their faces with ashes or white talcum powder, and go from house to house trick-or-treating. This is the Taajaboon part of the celebration.

The local Muslim lore suggests that it is on the night of Tamxarit that the Angel of Death chooses those who are to die during the course of the upcoming year. So children are jokingly told to eat well at dinner so that they are too heavy for the Angel of Death to carry. The cross-dressing and the painting of faces translate this notion of hiding from the Angel of Death who would not recognize men from women since the gender lines are blurred through costumes and the unrecognizable faces. The costumes and scary faces also add humorous and spooky elements to the celebration.

Children are told to leave a shirt with pockets in the living room for the angel to bring them gifts (I believe this part is borrowed from the Christian tradition of Santa Claus bringing gifts on Christmas night.). The day after is the culmination of the holiday when families gather in the morning to recite specific verses of the Koran and pray for the year ahead to be better than the previous one. It is also believed that at a certain time of the day, those who put black kohl around their eyes and look up the sky, would see the soapy waters discarded by Fatoumata Bintou (daughter of the Prophet Mohamed (SAS)) after she finished washing her clothes.

An important aspect of Taajaboon is the singing and dancing that goes along. There is pretty much one song delivered in different versions throughout the night. The song emulates a conversation between the Angel of Death and the person it has come to take. The lyrics state that the Angel of Death has two sides. It will come from above and land on the ground. It will ask the person if they have prayed and fasted. If the person answers no, they would go to Hell. If they answer yes, they would go to Heaven. Groups are often divided by age. When they arrive at a house, they would sing the song and show off their costumes. When they receive a treat, they would dance and say prayers before heading to the next house.

The best part of Taajaboon for me as a child was the anticipation of the event and the creativity involved in making a drum from large tin cans, as well as borrowing clothes from my dad’s closet in order to have the most “manly” costume. It was an occasion to bond with friends because like Halloween, the essence of the festival is to have fun. The treats range from a cup of rice, millet, corn or sugar, to money. Often, groups would meet and strategize about their action plan and how to get the most treats. Our group would get together later in the week in order to have a party where the proceeds of our trick-or-treating would be prepared into a meal. Depending on how much of each item we got during Taajaboon, we would resell a portion to our moms in order to buy other ingredients we would need for our party.

Taajaboon has many similarities with Halloween such as the port of costumes, the trick-or-treating, and the bonding with friends. A major difference though is that Taajaboon does not have the consumerism culture that surrounds Halloween with the ridiculous amounts of candy and costume sales. But despite the fact that I worry about my kids’ teeth on Halloween, I really enjoy the holiday! I wrote this post wearing my purple witch hat.

Happy Halloween!

To my Senegalese readers, happy Taajaboon on November 12!

Immigrant Children and Language

 

Language is an important aspect of our cultural identity. As immigrants, being able to keep our native languages alive by passing them on to our children is a source of great pride. It is also a way for some of us to demonstrate that despite our physical displacement, we remain culturally grounded in our communities of origin. However, sometimes our children are not ready or willing to speak our languages. In this case, there is no greater source of frustration for the immigrant parent. Because I work in the educational field, I often have these conversations with students whose parents are immigrants from different parts of the world, and many acknowledge that they refrain from speaking their parents’ native languages in public because they do not want to come across as different to their peers. This is the reason why some children may be comfortable speaking their parents’ native language at home, but in public, would respond to their parents in English only. I have seen this in the Senegalese immigrant communities I have interacted with. I have also observed that some parents, because they are eager to claim the American experience, or fear that their children will speak English with a foreign accent, choose to not teach their mother tongue to their children. I belong in the first group.

I enjoy speaking Wolof to my children, especially in public because I want them to have a sense of pride in their cultural identity.  I also think that it is very important to know more than one language. Before I had children, I imagined them to be trilingual like their parents, speaking Wolof, French and English. But it turns out that on a daily basis, we use only English and Wolof in our household. In an earlier post, I have shared how I don’t care much for the French language. Since relocating to the US, my usage of French is mostly limited to reading and the occasional conversation. Of course, there are some words I only say in French because they have been adopted into the Wolof language. For example we still use “ça va?” to greet each other.  But teaching French to my children was not an imminent goal. I however was determined that my children would be fluent in Wolof.  I spent a considerable amount of time researching multiple strategies that would make it possible for us to raise bilingual children. While there are several studies on how to teach children multiple languages, they all agree that the best way is that each parent would exclusively speak one language to the child. For example if parents wanted to teach their children Wolof, French, and English. One parent would speak only Wolof to the child while the other would speak only French. Then when parents are speaking between themselves, they would use English. I have seen this work out great for a family that I know.

In my case, I set out to speak only Wolof to my children but I did not realize how hard it would be to stick to it. I switched languages throughout my life going to school in French and English and then speaking Wolof at home. Doing the same with my children turned out to be a challenge. I spoke mostly Wolof to my first child and it worked out ok. She understands pretty much everything and with few trips to Senegal, manages to express herself in the language, most times. She also is curious about expressions she does not know and often takes the initiative to speak Wolof.  I was not as lucky with my second child. Although he often undertands what I mean, he doesn’t attempt to speak, unless he wants to make fun of me by repeating everything I say to him. This frustrates me because I know it is my fault that he is not as fluent as his sister.  I must have changed my approach and spoke predominantly English to him. It could also be that he went to daycare earlier than his sister and was therefore exposed to an English-only environment at a critical moment in language acquisition. In any case, something different happened in the ways languages were introduced to the two of them. Knowing this, I decided to speak only Wolof to my third child. Although I could tell that he understood most of what I said, I could not see any signs of him speaking the language, mainly because he is still very young to have an elaborate speech. But since he’s been going to daycare, I noticed that he was trying to utter English words in his babbling. I was getting alarmed that my linguistic efforts were vain.  So one can imagine how thrilled I was  few days ago, when he started telling people: “Kaay, kaay!” [Come here, come here!], gesturing with his fingers in the manner one would summon a person!

Some linguists argue that when children are taught multiple languages simultaneously, they tend to take longer speaking because they are trying to process and separate them before beginning to talk in either language. Maybe this is what is happening with my third child. Other experts suggest that there are three windows when the child’s mind is more open to learning a second, third, or even fourth language. The optimal window is at the time when the child is learning their first language, which is from birth to three years of age. The second window is between ages two and seven, and the last window is between ten and thirteen. This gives me hope that all is not lost for my second child, provided I break my habit of speaking English to him.

Please share your experiences and tips.

 

Senamericanly yours,